Well, it’s finally happened. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Texas, has introduced a bill in the House that “removes liability protections for social media companies that use algorithms to hide, promote, or filter user content.”
When a new technology or industry comes into being, governments often try to encourage it with tax breaks, regulatory relief and perhaps even laws tailored to grow the new technology. They do this not out of altruism, but because they want to help a small pot of money to grow into a big pot of money – which they can then begin taxing.
Internet sales tax breaks for consumers are fading now, but originally were a powerful incentive to grow online shopping. At the same time, however, this was a disincentive to expand brick and mortar stores. Federal tax rules have been very favorable to big tech for a long time now, especially in how they treat the acquisition of new computer hardware.
Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter and to a lesser extent their clones now dominate the internet, although each in a somewhat different manner. Amazon for shopping (or setting up a small shop), Google for finding things, Facebook for keeping up with family and friends, and Twitter for short, pithy exchanges with people you might not otherwise be able to interact with.
So, what’s the problem? As Rep. Gohmert touches on, the tech giants are making increasing use of computer algorithms to determine what gets seen and what disappears into the vast Silicon Valley bit bucket. As gigantic corporations, they have top legal expertise available to tailor their “terms of service” agreements to encourage or discourage whatever they wish.
Computer algorithms thus control what human beings can say and do on the internet. The end result is that now corporate executives, lawyers and computers control the content and communication of vast portions of the internet. The servant has become the master.
On Amazon, the mouse-click rules. Things that sell well are promoted; things that don’t are demoted in the search shopping list. Facebook collects insane amounts of personal data, which they sell to advertisers or let “partners” use. This in turn tailors their ads very specifically. What Google’s algorithms do … nobody outside the company really knows. Twitter tries to keep discussions lively, but somewhat shy of flame wars.
As computer algorithms have become more complex, the temptation to promote certain views and demote others becomes a reality. It could be a coder, a designer, or an executive who inserts the nefarious code. Who would know? A well-documented academic study has already demonstrated that Google can shift opinions simply by the search “completions” it offers. Facebook has its trigger words (and who knows what else) that it uses to block certain posts, or limit the number of people these posts are shown to. Twitter has become notorious for “shadow banning” posters whose political views the company doesn’t like.
Gohmert seems to want to control the tech behemoths by forcing them to accept responsibility for what is posted on their platforms. I do see a danger here, however: An obscure government department could begin issuing “guidelines” that, if followed by big tech, would provide certain protection. In essence, we would shift big tech’s bias from its employees into an obscure government bureaucracy.
A better solution in my view would be to force the tech giants to “open source” their algorithm computer code and publish it on public sites prior to taking it “live” within their company. Open source is not perfect, but there are plenty of people who would wade through the proposed code and indicate any bias or problems they discovered. The company could then choose to implement the code, or change it. If they implemented with the biases, this would quickly be reported across the internet.
Really, if you want to be a near-monopoly, you need some oversight. It’s going to come either from the government (and state governments could wade in as well), or from open source.
Behind Enemy Lines: Supernatural Meddling. Read the beginning of Vol. II in the Armageddon Story novel series.