Facebook, free speech and control

 

 

Matt Taibbi

One of the most important take-aways from Tim Wu’s The Master Switch is that censorship is facilitated by control of the market. Speech control follows ownership concentration. He points out how the Catholic Legion of Decency gained control of movies in the 1930s because of the vertical integration between movie theatre chains and production studios. In Wu’s phrase, a Catholic priest was controlling movies produced by Jews for a majority Protestant nation. The Legion of Decency could attach itself successfully to the movie business because the control of it was already secured by the owners of the studios.

“It is industrial structure that determines the limits of free speech.”

“The trick is that a concentrated industry need not be censorial by nature in order for its structure to produce a chilling effect on the freedom of expression….The problem is that a “speech industry” – as we might term any information industry — once centralized, becomes an easy target for external independent actors with strong reasons of their own for limiting speech. And these reasons may have nothing to do with the industry per se.” (The Master Switch at pp 121-123)

This brings us to Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone on Facebook: Can we be saved from the Social Media Giant?

The article needs to be seen as a useful changing of the subject, from Russia and Trump, to Trump and Facebook, to Facebook itself. It also signals a change in the description of the Internet, from an information cornucopia to an “informational landscape… controlled more or less entirely by a pair of advanced spying operations, Google and Facebook – and Facebook especially”.

Taibbi says that, “in many ways the [current] Facebook controversy is a canard”, meaning that the issue is media control, pure and simple, not Trump, and not Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Facbook has 2.1 billion customers today and grows by 50 to 100 million users per quarter, with revenues of $40.7 billion in 2017.

After a great deal of sanctimonious drivel from Taibbi about how everyone is becoming imprisoned in their own information ghettos – when were we not?- he gets to the real point. The “fake news” issue  is only the outer manifestation of the targetting of viewers with information, which is  a wholly legal advertizing technique. Moreover, it is “what the product was designed for.”

“Simply by growing so large that his firm ended up standing between media publishers and media consumers, constantly creating rules about who saw what, Zuckerberg and Facebook have created a thing America has never had before: an entrenched de facto media regulator”.

Obviously this is not fully accurate: see the discussion above about movie censorship, which lasted from the 1930s  until the 1960s. But Taibbi is accurate when he says that Facebook and Google can sell eyeballs to advertizers with exquisite accuracy, with the result that the two of them garner 63.1% of digital advertizing revenues

The complaint of publishers is that 1) they can never learn how the Facebook algorithm works, which determines who sees what, and 2) they receive frequently changing information on how to optimize content to reach maximum attention.

Taibbi indulges in a lot of ‘de haut en bas‘ – condescending –  talk about how the press used to work better in the days of printing presses, and how the soiled masses insist on getting their own reality manifested in their choices of media. He writes from the point of view of a Democrat contemplating the frightfulness of the lower orders insisting on their right to receive the information they want, which is part of the reason why Trump now sits in the White House.

Nevertheless, there is justice in his conclusion that “a functioning free press just can’t co-exist with an unaccountable private regulator”.

His argument ends up resembling the argument about net neutrality, which applies to underlying physical carriers of signals – or not. In net neutrality regimes, such as Canada’s, there exists a regulator that determines whether a behaviour by a carrier amounts to unjust discrimination against a particular use or a group of users. “Neutrality” is not an absolute but a sliding scale of offences and permitted actions. Most important, there is a referee.

In the case of Facebook and Google, we are not dealing with a carrier, but with a software platform, and no law governs their behaviour towards publishers seeking to reach audiences through them. No one has assimilated software platforms to common carriers, yet. No one has to my knowledge proposed common carrier obligations for Facebook and Google. Moreover the US Federal Communications Commission has just removed net neutrality obligations from the carriers. Verizon and Comcast and the like can now squeeze content and viewers as they think best.

It is evident that the forces assembling against Google and Facebook will be coming from the political Left, and not only from conservatives concerned that these companies are running political cults.

My concern remains that, if the technical structure permits it, if there are points of control, these will be used to limit free discussion.

 

 

 

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