Cory Doctorow quite rightly calls out that Big Tech’s “too big to fail” status has created “oligopolistic power” which limits our choice over how we’re connected to the people we want to interact with.
I like his reference of Frank Pasquale’s two approaches to regulation. I guess I’m a Jeffersonian, too…
Every community has implicit and explicit rules about what kinds of speech are acceptable, and metes out punishments to people who violate those rules, ranging from banishment to shaming to compelling the speaker to silence. You’re not allowed to get into a shouting match at a funeral, you’re not allowed to use slurs when addressing your university professor, you’re not allowed to explicitly describe your sex-life to your work colleagues. Your family may prohibit swear-words at Christmas dinner or arguments about homework at the breakfast table.
One of the things that defines a community are its speech norms. In the online world, moderators enforce those “house rules” by labeling or deleting rule-breaking speech, and by cautioning or removing users.
Doing this job well is hard even when the moderator is close to the community and understands its rules. It’s much harder when the moderator is a low-waged employee following company policy at a frenzied pace. Then it’s impossible to do well and consistently.
It’s not that we value the glorious free speech of our harassers, nor that we want our views “fact-checked” or de-monetized by unaccountable third parties, nor that we want copyright filters banishing the videos we love, nor that we want juvenile sensationalism rammed into our eyeballs or controversial opinions buried at the bottom of an impossibly deep algorithmically sorted pile.
We tolerate all of that because the platforms have taken hostages: the people we love, the communities we care about, and the customers we rely upon. Breaking up with the platform means breaking up with those people.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The internet was designed on protocols, not platforms: the principle of running lots of different, interconnected services, each with its own “house rules” based on its own norms and goals. These services could connect to one another, but they could also block one another, allowing communities to isolate themselves from adversaries who wished to harm or disrupt their fellowship.
Frank Pasquale’s Tech Platforms and the Knowledge Problem poses two different approaches to tech regulation: “Hamiltonians” and “Jeffersonians” (the paper was published in 2018, and these were extremely zeitgeisty labels!).
Hamiltonians favor “improving the regulation of leading firms rather than breaking them up,” while Jeffersonians argue that the “very concentration (of power, patents, and profits) in megafirms” is itself a problem, making them both unaccountable and dangerous.
That’s where we land. We think that technology users shouldn’t have to wait for Big Tech platform owners to have a moment of enlightenment that leads to its moral reform, and we understand that the road to external regulation is long and rocky, thanks to the oligopolistic power of cash-swollen, too-big-to-fail tech giants.