A few days ago, ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, discovered that a tool it was using to track political advertising on Facebook had been quietly disabled — by Facebook. The browser extension had detected political ad campaigns and gathered details on the ads’ target audiences. Facebook also tracks political ad campaigns, but sometimes it fails to detect them. For the past year, the company had accepted corrections from ProPublica — until one day it decided it didn’t want them anymore. It also seems like “they don’t wish for there to be information about the targeting of political advertising,” an editor at ProPublica told me.
Facebook also made news in recent days for another tool: an app, this time its own, designed to give the company access to extensive information about how consumers were using their telephones. Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, has defended the project vigorously, on the grounds that those who signed up to use this research app knew what they were doing — and were paid $20 a month. Unamused, Apple decided to intervene — and has now banned the app from its phones.
Both of these stories have something in common: They illustrate who is making the rules of our new information network — and it isn’t us. It isn’t citizens, or Congress, who decide how our information network regulates itself. We don’t get to decide how information companies collect data, and we don’t get to decide how transparent they should be. The tech companies do that all by themselves.
Why does it matter? Because this is the information network that now brings most people their news and opinions about politics, about medicine, about the economy. This is also the information network that is fueling polarization, that favors sensational news over constructive news and that has destroyed the business model of local and investigative journalism. The past few days have also brought news of staff layoffs at newspapers around the country, from Arizona to Tennessee to New Jersey.
I have singled out Facebook here because it is the dominant force in social media — like an old-fashioned monopolist, it owns Instagram and WhatsApp, too — but I could write similarly about Google, which is the dominant force in Internet search, or YouTube, which is owned by Google and is the dominant force in the distribution of video content. These companies also operate according to their own rules and algorithms. They decide how data gets collected and who sees it. They decide how political and commercial advertising is regulated and monitored. They even decide what gets censored. The public sphere is shaped by these decisions, but the public has no say. [Continue reading…]