The game has shifted in the last three weeks. Frances Haugen, a brave Facebook whistleblower, has transformed the conversation about technology reform, accomplishing more than what I and others had accomplished in years of effort. The documents she provided, known as the “Facebook Files,” confirmed that the harms caused by Facebook’s business model are not an accident, but rather the unavoidable result of a risky design. The documents show that, in many cases, Facebook chose to double down despite being aware of the harm it was causing and under pressure to change. It is clear that policymakers and the media have consistently underestimated Facebook’s threat, believing the company’s rosy claims about the power of connecting the world and giving the company the benefit of the doubt when none was deserved.
All incentives encourage the company to continue on its current path. And recent history lends credence to the cynic’s view that our democracy and government are too broken to rein in any large corporation. However, we are now at a point where further inaction by Congress will almost certainly result in ongoing disasters from which we may not be able to recover for a generation or more. Though it’s important to keep one’s hopes and expectations in check when it comes to Congress, the current situation feels distinct from previous technology scandals, particularly those involving Facebook. Senators from both parties spoke out in support of Ms. Haugen’s testimony and legislation to address it at this week’s hearing. In reality, few members of Congress have a clear understanding of the regulatory path forward, but they are determined to find it.
CEOs such as Zuckerberg assert that they have a mandate to maximize shareholder value. A single-minded focus on profits and shareholder value, like the phrase “I’m just following orders,” can be used to justify all manner of sins. Zuckerberg differs from other CEOs in the extent of harm his company can inflict and the absolute control he enjoys, but given the culture of business in America, I suspect far too many CEOs envy his power and would pursue the same strategy, though they might be more astute about public relations.
A sizable portion of the US economy operates under the auspices of a system dubbed “surveillance capitalism” by Harvard University’s Shoshana Zuboff. Surveillance capitalists, like oil companies and other extraction businesses, assert property rights to every piece of data they touch, including data derived from public spaces and from the experience and property of others. The economics of surveillance capitalism stem from the conversion of human experience into data, the creation of models for each individual based on that data, and the use of those models to predict and influence behavior.
Everything we do on our smartphones is tracked, including every financial transaction, every trip, every prescription and medical test, and every action we take on the Internet or in apps, and the majority of it is available for purchase in a data marketplace. Machine learning is used by businesses all over the world to look for patterns in data, and artificial intelligence is used to apply those patterns to improve their operations
Surveillance capitalism is undermining personal autonomy and democracy. Despite this, today’s tech industry is largely unregulated, having emerged during a period of deregulation and defunding of enforcement agencies. This has enabled tech behemoths to act as unelected governments. Their communication systems have become central to our way of life, as evidenced by this week’s outage of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, but they have the upper hand, amplifying content that incites fear and outrage in order to maximize profits.
The unfortunate reality is that the unregulated tech industry produces unsafe products. In the past, Congress has had to deal with the issue of dangerous products. When the food and pharmaceutical industries were deemed unsafe, Congress established the Food and Drug Administration. When petrochemical companies dumped toxic waste without regard, Congress passed a slew of environmental laws. The affected industries claimed that, like tech companies today, they would be unable to operate in the face of regulation, but this proved to be incorrect. We now require something akin to an FDA for technology products, with the goal of preventing harmful technologies from entering the market.