Opinion

To Serve Man, the 2019 Version

One of the creepiest Twilight Zone episodes involved aliens who came to Earth bearing a gift: the solutions to famine, energy shortages, and the threat of war. The answers were in a book entitled “To Serve Man.” Life became easier – until humans realized that “To Serve Man” was actually a cookbook to fatten them for the slaughter.

Fast-forward six decades and society is grappling with a less gruesome but similar dilemma: the cost of what we get for “free” from digital platforms. Google and Facebook became dominant companies by offering services and apps to connect us and make our life easier. But we have learned that the adage is true: If you don’t pay for the product, you are the product.

Google and Facebook services and apps are a data sponge, soaking up our information so it can be monetized to whoever is willing to pay for it.

It’s made the companies rich.

How they got rich is the dark side of the story. In their hunger for data to monetize, platforms have often turned a blind eye to criminals and bad actors. For example, since 2013 the Digital Citizens Alliance has cajoled Google to stop the promotion and sale of opioids, stolen credit cards, fake passports, and other illicit goods on its platforms. The company largely ignored the pleas.

Google’s unwillingness to prioritize consumer safety has led to billions of dollars in fines for anti-competitive behavior, helping international pharmacies illegally market drugs, and unfair advertising practices. And Facebook disclosed recently that it expects to be fined up to $5 billion by the Federal Trade Commission for consumer privacy violations.

But it goes beyond consumer safety and privacy. Lax oversight by both Google and Facebook enabled widespread manipulation of public opinion – culminating in Russian attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. election.

Why would Google and Facebook engage in such risky behaviors that lead to billions of dollars in fines and a loss of consumer trust? Because their business model compels it. As an equation, the business model looks like this:

Users = traffic = data = monetization = revenues = market capitalization

Despite the fines and criticism, the platforms are desperate to preserve their business model. The reason is simple: money. After the 2016 election, the companies came under a cascade of criticism, yet the stock of Google and Facebook have each risen about 60 percent. This means that the collective value of the companies during that time has grown at an average of nearly $20 billion per month.

That’s because the sheer size of the companies and their control over content, data, and advertising makes them practically unstoppable. Fines haven’t slowed them down and the Mark Zuckerberg apology tour rings hollow.

The business model is eroding their trustworthiness. According to a recent DCA survey, 70 percent of Americans say their trust in digital platforms has diminished in the last year. And only 28 percent say that the platforms have been a “positive development for society.”

Now we have to decide what kind of future we want. Should we impose new regulations to hold the platforms accountable? What punishments will deter them from violating the rules? It’s clearly not a fine of $5 billion: Facebook’s stock soared at that news. Investors understood that it was a mere slap on the wrist.

Will it take breaking up the companies? For example, dismantling the stranglehold on digital advertising that the two companies share? The chorus for ant-trust action is getting louder and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has served notice that she will make it part of the 2020 presidential election debate.

As we decide the proper course, let’s agree on what we don’t want. China is reportedly building a digital database that will enable it to give each person a citizenship score. If a person is deemed unreliable, then he or she is unlikely to get a good job and his or her children may be barred from the top schools. And we are rapidly reaching a point where it would be feasible for companies to use our digital history and physical DNA to make health and life insurance decisions about us.

These concerns may seem far-fetched, but in 2005 it would have also seemed crazy to imagine that entities called social media platforms could influence a presidential election. Let’s make sure our future is the one we choose, and that it’s one in which mankind is not on the menu.

 

Tom Galvin is executive director for the Digital Citizens Alliance, a consumer-focused group whose mission is to raise awareness among the public and policymakers about how to make the internet safer.

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