Two fairly widely followed technology conferences took place simultaneously this week (because who wants to go to technology conferences during the holidays). Amidst the usual parade of folks touting the next big idea was the continuing underlying theme of ‘what do we do now that the internet has gone south.’ No one seems to be too sure of how to clean up the toxic pit of content that continues to rear its ugly head online. Nor is anyone too sure of how to rectify the fact that their monetization strategy, which involves selling their users personal data, is not proving to be that popular with those very users.
Both events were held in California, Techonomy 2019 in Half Moon Bay, and Recode Media in Los Angeles. I followed both in the cold rainy Northeast on my laptop. There were some common themes.
- There are the Silicon Valley apologists who consider all the problematic content, ranging from organized government disinformation campaigns to revenge porn, as the unintended consequences of the technology industry’s goal to bring people together and put a world of information at their fingertips. They are quick to point out that the poisonous content is but a small percentage of what’s online.
- No one really trusts the big technology companies nor believes they have to ability to get this under control. Thus government regulation is broadly seen as both inevitable and desirable.
- The drive for growth and revenue of these industry giants has laid low their seemingly altruistic goals from what one observer called the ‘golden age of technology’ at the beginning of the 21st century. (Remember when Google’s tagline was “don’t be evil.”)
David Kirkpatrick is the founder of Techonomy and he once wrote a massively flattering book called “The Facebook Effect.” Nine years later he opened the conference talking about the role greed plays in the way Facebook and other large tech giants are run. He noted that despite the fact that Mark Zuckerburg has far more money than he would ever be able to spend in multiple lifetimes, it is revenue that has driven Facebook to act the way it does, including their widely unpopular decision to allow politicians to post anything they want irrespective of either the truth or the consequences. He also noted the influence of Wall Street with its focus on short-term results and continuous growth.
Veteran media analyst Tim O’Reilly, also speaking at Techonomy, used Google as an example of the corrupting influence of money. Whereas Google earned its place on our devices as the dominant search engine by responding to our queries with the best possible results, O’Reilly said that 50% of all Google searches now end with Google. Sometimes you have to scroll down before seeing the first organic link. “Instead of serving users better, we’re doing things that make us the most money,” O’Reilly said.
He suggested that Silicon Valley is a parable for what is wrong with the U.S. economy. The algorithms that manage Google’s search or Facebook’s news feed or Amazon’s recommendation engine have all been steered toward one thing, make more profit for shareholders.
Hence the focus on government regulation. But what can we really expect from that. The U.S. has an administration whose only motive is self preservation. The FCC chairman Ajit Pai has generally advocated on behalf of the large internet providers (he came from Verizon) and has eliminated regulations intended to guarantee net neutrality. And then there’s the Senate. How comfortable would we be having the likes of Mitch McConnell setting internet policy.
Fadi Chehade was a member of the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation and President and CEO of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). So he has some first hand knowledge when he says “most governments do not know how the internet works” and “government structure is inadequate to address the digital economy.” His suggestion is that there needs to be an independent institution to create “guardrails.” That of course requires both the tech companies and government to surrender some authority to such an institution.
A little further south in Los Angeles, the call for government regulation came from a surprising place. Facebook was represented at Code Media by Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions. Whatever it was she may have had on her agenda, she was on the firing line for questions about why Facebook is running political ads untouched irrespective of whether they violate the company’s rules or contain content that would cause other Facebook users to be censored or blocked. “We should not be the arbiter of truth,” Everson said, adding “there should be government regulation to assure truthfulness.” She went on to comment “we want help with regulation about privacy, election integrity and data portability.”
I’m a little skeptical about how much Facebook would actually welcome regulation. Everson, who as an ad salesperson and surely not the best person to comment on these issues, sounded to me like someone whose bosses are trying to dodge accountability.
The outlier in the room (back at Techonomy) was Andrew Kessler, a Wall Street Journal contributor, venture capitalist and avowed free market advocate. He described calls for regulation as “misguided” and suggested that the impact of regulation is to lock in the incumbents and shut out new voices. He described a sort of free market natural selection process, noting that the dominant players now likely won’t be in 20 years. According to Kessler the “seeds of destruction” are already present, citing as examples Apple where the iPhone has peaked and iPad numbers are declining, and Facebook where subscriber numbers have peaked (Everson would challenge this) and they face new competition from companies like Fortnite and TikTok.
After writing this, I looked back at some of my earlier technology posts: The social media networks are infected and they don’t have a cure (June) , and (Nearly) Live at SXSW: How to save the internet (March).
Hmmm. Not much has changed.