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In January this year, during US Presidential elections after Twitter, Facebook, Google and Amazon banned former US President Donald Trump and some of his supporters in the wake of seize of the US Capitol on 6th January 2021, the global debate over how to govern big tech has intensified.
Obviously, transnational technology channels have power and reach to not only influence politics and markets through actions of users, but also wield political power themselves. Our people and society has yet to adjust to these new realities and come to terms with power centers of the Information Age. All countries—from autocracies, monarchies, and liberal democracies are in their own ways contending with the challenges of how to limit, control, regulate and harness them.
Especially for liberal democracies, the challenge is particularly acute because Big Tech platforms affect cognition, and by manipulating the content and flow of information, they—and their millions of users—can literally shape what people think, believe and act. Many business models now rely on tripping the instinctive power of human brain, causing people to jump from issue to issue, and reducing their reasoning ability, virtually controlling their mind.
The entire structure of liberal democracy—and free markets—relies on the axiom that humans are capable of reason, and make rational decisions after weighing pros and cons. Unfortunately, what we are increasingly experiencing is that we have been fast losing our capacity of rational decision-makers, and are more likely than ever before to be swayed by ‘what other people think’. This is not only true for personal decisions, but also for political and economic ones. Political parties, religious organizations, and big Tech are aware of this major drawback in human cognition, and are busy exploiting it for their benefit. It raises another important question: If people are not able to make rational decisions, what purpose liberal democracy and free markets serve?
Liberal democracies have started responding to this challenge in two different ways, both relying on using existing tools to fix a problem that they were not originally designed for. The first approach is to regulate multiple aspects of the information domain, mainly through surveillance, check on free speech and protecting citizens’ fundamental rights. Still, governments are bent upon increasing surveillance and restrict free speech that inevitably leads to politicization, predilection and injustice. For example, if you disagree with Facebook’s rules, you have a choice not to use it. But if you disagree with your government’s policies, you can do nothing.
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The second approach is to introduce competition law and try to use anti-trust regulation to curb the market monopoly of Big Tech platforms. The fact remains that barriers for using the internet are non-existent, and targeting the clout of technology platforms essentially destroys value for everyone, including consumers. One big tech network is far more valuable than the total sum of four smaller networks with each almost quarter its size. Breaking up a behemoth like Facebook Inc., for example, might reduce the political power of the holding company and their owners, and perhaps for some time may slow down the spread of hate and bigotry. Whether such benefits can justify the destruction of global public value that breaking up such a company entails is not clear.
There obviously appears the better approach. The political power of technology platforms essentially comes more from their “narrative power” than their market power; more from mindshare than the market share. It is this power that liberal democracies must check and target. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, Vero, and Connected India are considered ‘platforms’ because they do not possess editorial control over what is published. Yet, they control what users see, and share by employing algorithms that only they control. This lies at the center of their narrative power, and this is what public policy must focus on.
People like Francis Fukuyama, Barak Richman and Ashish Goel suggest a middleware solution: “A competitive layer of new companies having transparent algorithms would come in the picture, and take over the editorial functions currently performed by dominant technology platforms with opaque algorithms.” However, a simpler approach can be adopted for making it mandatory for platforms to open their application programming interfaces (APIs) for access by third-party clients, which could further offer competing filtration algorithms. Although, these approaches vary in complexity and detail, but the common element to all of them is a clear understanding that the problem is political, and not economic, and the way to address it is to use competition to limit narrative power, not market power. They offer us basis to think that we can use liberal democratic system to safeguard it in the Information Age.