In the week leading up to Election Day, The Verge is running a series of editorials about what we’re voting for — not candidates but the ideas that move us to engage with the electoral process in the first place.
At the start of a new decade, the internet is fragile and fractured.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the digital divide into sharp relief, with millions of Americans struggling to get online. Large social networks have created new venues for speech and creativity but at the cost of harassment, radicalization, eroded privacy, and an uncertain future for small businesses and media outlets. Online spaces have never been more important. Because of that, their problems have never been more obvious.
Lawmakers and regulators are aware of these problems. This year has seen plans to change foundational internet laws, multiple federal agencies launching investigations, and a scathing 450-page congressional report about Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple. But too often, politicians have been sidetracked by political vendettas or short-term fixes. Instead, they should be helping shape a better digital world by regulating tech’s powerful incumbents and encouraging new alternatives.
Take the countless proposals to change Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law saying web services can’t be sued over user-generated content. Some of these plans are aimed at important problems like abuse and misinformation. But few are backed by evidence that they’ll help fix these issues, leading to badly designed rules like FOSTA-SESTA, which may actually have hurt the communities it was supposed to help. Some members of Congress have even promoted false information about Section 230, like claims that the rule only protects “neutral platforms” that don’t moderate content. If the people who make laws can’t (or won’t) correctly explain how those laws work, why should anyone trust them?
Broadband access is a different challenge, but it runs into similar problems. Despite pleas and subsidies from the federal government, internet service providers have failed to provide adequate service to substantial parts of the country. When communities have tried to take matters into their own hands, they’ve found themselves blocked by state governments protecting these big telecoms. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has quibbled over the definition of acceptable broadband speeds and painted a misleading picture of its availability, while antitrust regulators have allowed a few companies to monopolize access to a near necessity of modern life.
Even the so-called “techlash” has devolved into a partisan information war. Ordinary people with concrete problems — like young YouTubers targeted by child predators or Amazon workers facing inhumane working conditions — have been sidelined by politicians championing right-wing media figureheads or complaining about their follower counts. Far from showing a bipartisan appetite for reform, it’s a distraction that pushes companies away from stopping harassment, misinformation, and other widespread concerns.
It’s easier than ever to find an audience criticizing Big Tech. But that criticism has been hijacked by lawmakers and policymakers acting in bad faith. The result has been a lot of proposals that punish a few big platforms while ignoring the potential harm to small, independent sites and apps. And ironically, it’s given a pass to powerful conglomerates like Comcast and AT&T, which already control huge swathes of the communications and media landscape.
We can do better. Instead of shoehorning complaints about tech into convenient political narratives, our government could spend more time listening to experts — and to the citizens it represents.
The past year’s antitrust investigations have been a positive step. Congress spent months gathering information about whether some of the biggest tech companies engaged in anti-competitive behavior. A committee called for testimony from people who ran websites, developed apps, and sold goods online. It treated tech as more than the sum of a few platforms or a political soapbox, and it delivered a report with suggestions that could actually help make the web better.
But antitrust enforcement isn’t enough to build a healthier internet. Today’s tech giants grew without addressing serious concerns about their products’ larger social effects. Left to their own devices, new competitors won’t necessarily do better. In fact, many small startups are more careless with their users’ privacy, security, and safety. We need better rules and enforcement to protect people from invasive surveillance technologies like facial recognition, algorithms that inadvertently encourage discrimination or hide deliberately unfair systems, intimate “smart” products with huge security holes, and countless other modern digital perils. Lawmakers have floated plenty of potential fixes, but they’ve largely stalled in Congress or have been actively reversed under the Trump administration.
Some problems require complex and nuanced legal changes. But others are straightforward. Prison phone and video calls, for instance, are a vital lifeline for incarcerated people, yet their families can pay exorbitant fees for this basic human connection. While the problem is far from fixed, legislators and the FCC have pushed to limit fees and even make calls free during the coronavirus pandemic. Congress and a presidential administration should look for more of these smaller, targeted changes that help vulnerable people — even if they’re less flashy than taking on Facebook or Google.
We don’t have to stop at punishing bad actors. Lawmakers could use grants or tax incentives to reward startups for producing secure, accessible, and ethically designed tech. When agencies turn to private partners for infrastructure, they can use those partnerships to encourage upholding American principles, not simply picking the cheapest or most convenient option — or leaving public institutions at the mercy of companies that have their own agendas.
Not all tech needs to be run by tech companies. The American government helped create programming and the internet as we know it. Now, our states can’t even find the resources to keep overloaded unemployment and voter registration systems online. Municipal systems are dangerously vulnerable to hackers’ ransomware attacks. Like a post office or mass transit network, some online services will probably never turn a profit. That doesn’t make them any less vital, and we need public infrastructure to support them.
Conversely, it’s not just companies that need to be reined in. We also need regulation targeted at law enforcement agencies that buy data to get around the Constitution, rifle through people’s social media profiles at the border, and run secretive online snooping campaigns across the US and the rest of the world. The election has raised fears of foreign spying and hacking operations. But in America, surveillance often starts at home.
Politicians will almost certainly rail against “Big Tech” for years to come. That criticism may be warranted, but it misses the bigger picture. We don’t need a convenient crackdown on a few big companies. We need a better foundation for the internet of tomorrow — and a government that’s willing to help build it.