Public networks instead of social networks?

We need state-owned, interoperable, democratically governed online public networks. From the people for the people.

posted by Julia Rone

The conversation so far

The following comments on Trump being banned from Twitter/ the removal of Parler from Android and iOS stores were, somewhat aptly, inspired by two threads on Twitter itself: the first by the British-Canadian blogger Cory Doctorow and the other by Canadian scholar Blayne Haggart. The point of this post ideally is to start the conversation from where Doctorow and Haggart have left it and involve more people from our team. Ideally, nobody will be censored in the process :p

Doctorow insists that the big problem with Apple and Android removing Parler is not so much censorship – ultimately different app stores can have different rules and this should be the case – but rather the fact that there are no alternative app stores. Thus, the core of his argument is that the US needs to enforce anti-trust laws that would allow for a fair competition between a number of competitors. The same argument can be extended to breaking up social media monopolists such as Facebook and Twitter. What we need is more competition.

Haggart attacks this argument in three ways:

First, he reminds that “market regulation of the type that @doctorow wants requires perfect competition. This is unlikely to happen for a number of reasons (e.g, low consumer understanding of platform issues, tendency to natural monopoly)”. Thus, the most likely outcome becomes the establishment of “a few more corporate oligarchs”. This basically leaves the state as a key regulator – much to the disappointment of cyber-libertarians who have argued against state regulation for decades.

The problem is, and this is Haggart’s second key point, that “as a non-American, it’s beyond frustrating that this debate (like so many internet policy debates) basically amounts to Americans arguing with other Americans about how to run the world. Other countries need to assert their standing in this debate” . This point had been made years ago also in Martin Hardie’s great paper “Foreigner in a free land” in which he noticed how most debates about copyright law focused on the US. Even progressive people such as Larry Lessig built their whole argumentation on the basis of references to the US constitution. But what about all of us – the poor souls from the rest of the world who don’t live in the US?

Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Alphabet, Amazon, etc. are all US tech companies. But they do operate globally. So even if the US states interferes in regulating them, the regulation it imposes might not chime well with people in France or Germany, let’s say. The famous American prudence with nudity is the oft quoted example of different standards when it comes to content regulation. No French person would be horrified by the sight of a bare breast (at least if we believe stereotypes) so why should nude photos be removed from the French social media. If we want platform governance to be truly democratic, the people affected by it should “have a say in that decision”. But as Haggart notes “This cannot happen so long as platforms are global, or decisions about them are made only in DC”.

So what does Haggart offer? Simple: break social media giants not along market lines but along national lines. Well, maybe not that simple…

If we take the idea of breaking up monopolies along national lines seriously…

This post starts from Haggart’s proposal to break up social media along national lines, assuming it is a good proposal. In fact I do this not for rhetorical purposes or for the sake of setting a straw man but because I actually think it is a good proposal. So the following lines aim to take the proposal seriously and consider different aspects of it discussing what potential drawbacks/problems should we keep in mind.

How to do this??

The first key problem is: who on Earth, can convince companies such as Facebook/Twitter to “break along national lines”. These companies spend fortunes on lobbying the US government and they are US national champions. Why would the US support breaking them up along national lines? (As a matter of fact, the question of how is also a notable problem in Deibert’s “Reset” – his idea that hacktivism, civil disobedience, and whistleblowers’ pressure can make private monopolists exercise restraint is very much wishful thinking). There are historical precedents for nationalization of companies but they seem to have involved either a violent revolution or a massive indebtedness of these companies making it necessary for the state to step in and save them with public money. Are there any precedents for nationalizing a company and then revealing how it operates to other states in order to make these states create their respective national versions of it? Maybe. But it seems highly unlikely that anyone in the US would want to do this.

Which leaves us with the rather utopian option two: all big democratic states get together and develop interoperable social media. The project is such a success that people fed up with Facebook and Google decide to join and the undue influence of private monopolists finally comes to an end. But this utopian vision itself opens up a series of new questions.

Okay, assuming we can have state platforms operating along national lines..

Inscribing values in design is not always as straight-forward as it seems, as discussed in the fascinating conversation between Solon Barocas, Seda Gurses, Arvind Narayanan and Vincent Toubiana on decentralized personal data architectures. But, assuming that states can build and maintain (or hire someone to build and maintain) such platforms that don’t crash, are not easy to hack and are user friendly, the next question is: who is going to own the infrastructure and the data?

Who will own the infrastructure and the data?

One option would be for each individual citizen to own their data but this might be too risky and unpractical. Another option would be to treat the data as public data – the same way we treat data from surveys and national statistics. The personal data from current social media platforms is used for online advertising/ training machine learning. If states own their citizens’ data, we might go back to a stage in which the best research was done by state bodies and universities rather than what we have now – the most cutting edge research is done in private companies, often in secret from the public. Mike Savage described this process of increased privatization of research in his brilliant piece The Coming Crisis of Empirical sociology. If anything, the recent case with Google firing AI researcher Timnit Gebru reveals the need to have independent public research that is not in-house research by social media giants or funded by them. It would be naive to think such independent academics can do such research in the current situation when the bulk of interesting data to be analysed is privately owned.

How to prevent authoritarian censorship and surveillance?

Finally, if we assume that states will own their own online public networks – fulfilling the same functions such as Facebook, but without the advertising, the one million dollar question is how to prevent censorship, overreach and surveillance. As Ron Deibert discusses in “Reset”, most states are currently involved in some sort of hacking and surveillance operations of foreign but also domestic citizens. What can be done about this? Here Haggart’s argument about the need for democratic accountability reveals its true importance and relevance. State-owned online public networks would have to abide by standards that have been democratically discussed and to be accountable to the public.

But what Hagart means when discussing democratic accountability should be expanded. Democracy and satisfaction with it have been declining in many Western nations with more and more decision-making power delegated to technocratic bodies. Yet, what the protests from 2010s in the US and the EU clearly showed is that people are dissatisfied with democracy not because they want authoritarianism but because they want more democracy, that is democratic deepening. Or in the words of the Spanish Indignados protesters:

“Real democracy, now”

Thus, to bring to conclusion the utopia of state public networks, the decisions about their governance should be made not by technocratic bodies or with “democratic accountability” used as a form of window-dressing which sadly is often the case now. Instead, policy decisions should be discussed broadly through a combination of public consultations, assemblies and in already existing national and regional assemblies in order to ensure people have ownership of the policies decided. State public networks should be not only democratically accountable but also democratically governed. Such a scenario would be one of what I call “democratic digital sovereignty” that goes beyond the arbitrariness of decisions by private CEOs but also escapes the pitfalls of state censorship and authoritarianism.

To sum up: we need state-owned interoperable online public networks. Citizen data gathered from the use of these media would be owned by the state and would be available for public academic research (which would be open access in order to encourage both transparency and innovation). The moderation policies of these public platforms would be democratically discussed and decided. In short, these will be platforms of the people and for the people. Nothing more, nothing less.

The European Commission launches Amazon probe

John Naughton

The European commission has opened an antitrust investigation of Amazon, on the grounds that the company has breached EU antitrust rules against distorting competition in online retail markets. Amazon, says the commission, has been using its privileged access to non-public data of independent sellers who sell on its marketplace to benefit the parts of its own retail business that directly compete with those third-party sellers. The commission has also opened a second investigation into the possible preferential treatment of Amazon’s own retail offers compared with those of marketplace sellers that use Amazon’s logistics and delivery services.

The good news about this is not so much that the EU is taking action as that it is doing so in an intelligently targeted manner. Too much of the discourse about tech companies in the last two years has been about “breaking them up”. But “break ’em up” is a slogan, not a policy, and it has a kind of Trumpian ring to it. The commission is avoiding that.

It is also avoiding another trap – that of generally labelling Amazon as a “monopoly”. As the analyst Benedict Evans never tires of pointing out, a monopoly in what market, exactly? In the US, Amazon has about 40% of e-commerce. That looks like near dominance, in competitive terms. But e-commerce is only 16-20% of all retail. “So,” asks Evans, “does Amazon have 40% of e-commerce or 10% of retail? Amazon’s lawyers would argue, entirely reasonably, that Amazon competes with Walmart, Costco, Macy’s and Safeway – that it competes with other large retailers, not just ‘online’ retailers. On that basis, Amazon’s market is ‘retail’ and its market share in the US is between 5% and 10%.

On the other hand, if you’re a book publisher, then Amazon definitely looks like a monopoly with more than half of all book sales and probably three-quarters of all ebook sales. The moral for regulators, therefore, is that if you want to go after a monopolist then choose the market carefully. And this is what the commission has done, because in Amazon’s own online “marketplace”, where third parties sell stuff on its platform, it very definitely is a monopoly. And, according to the US House of Representatives recent inquiry, it is abusing its power in that particular marketplace. The EU inquiry will be into whether that is also happening in Europe.

The traditional response to such charges is that if people want to trade in Amazon’s hyper-efficient online marketplace then they have to play by Amazon’s rules. After all, nobody’s forcing them to be there. (The same argument is made about Apple’s app store.) That might work if there were dozens of alternative marketplaces, but network effects have led to a situation where a winner has taken all. In the online world, Amazon is a giant while all others are minnows. And the pandemic has further reinforced its dominance. So it really matters if the company is indeed abusing its monopoly in its own marketplace. What makes it worse is that Amazon is both a player in that marketplace and the adjudicator of complaints about its behaviour. Judge and jury and all that.

Breaking Amazon up is unlikely to be an effective remedy to this kind of problem. What is probably needed are laws that regulate behaviour in online marketplaces, which, for example, make it illegal both to run a market and trade in it on your own account. That’s not to say that break-up might not be appropriate in some cases. Maybe Facebook should be forced to disgorge Instagram and WhatsApp and Google to liberate YouTube. Even then, though, history provides some cautionary tales.

Take AT&T, for example, which for many decades was a lightly regulated monopoly with total control over the US telephone network. This had benefits, in the sense that the country had a pretty good analogue phone system. But it also had grievous downsides, because it meant that AT&T controlled the pace of innovation on communications technology, which effectively gave it the power to apply the brakes to the future. The company rejected the idea of packet-switching (the underpinning technology of the internet), for example, when it was first proposed in the early 1960s. Worse still, in the mid-1930s, after a researcher at Bell Labs invented a method of recording audio signals on to magnetised wire reels, he was forced to stop the research and lock away his notebooks because AT&T feared that it would damage the telephone business. So a technology that proved essential for the digital computing industry was hidden away for 20-plus years.

Eventually, though, the “break ’em up” mania took hold, and in the early 1980s AT&T was dismantled into seven companies – the “baby bells”. You can guess what happened: some of the babies grew and grew and swallowed up others, with the result that there are now two giant corporations – AT&T and Verizon. So even if WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram were liberated from their existing parents, network effects and capitalist concentration will make them into a new generation of tech giants and we will be back here in 20 years wondering how to regulate them. The truth is that regulation is hard and focused and intelligent regulation is even harder. So maybe the way the EU is going about it is the path to follow.

[A version of this post appeared in The Observer, 15.11.2020]