Today I’m writing about something that has been brewing in my mind for some time now. It’s a bit different than the other posts but it’s a chance for me to compile a sliver of my thoughts on the issue. These have been formed by the following people: Ben Thompson, Eugene Wei, and Matt Levine. I highly encourage everyone to follow their work.
Over the last year, a lot of e-ink has been spilled about how companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have censored conservative personalities and ideas. I think a lot of this has been through the wrong lens. Taking a broader look across the tech horizon, we see platforms that have amassed huge power in their ability to shape the national discourse. This concentration of power has gone mostly unchecked. This is not a conservative problem. This is an everyone problem.
It’s the systemic issue that we should be looking at. The problem is not that Twitter can ban Ben Shapiro, the problem is that Twitter can ban everyone it decides it wants to ban. And in an age where Twitter-as-a-diplomatic-channel is being pioneered, banning someone from Twitter can be seen as a violation of free speech.
Independent tech analyst Ben Thompson mentioned this in Spotify’s New Hate Policy (paywall):
What concerns me, rather, is the sheer amount of power that results from centralized control: specifically, I am extremely concerned about the explicit exercise of that power because of the nature of the power, not the reasons for which it is exercised.
The nature of this power is the power to shape everything from whether the new Katy Perry album is going to be a hit to whether an entire end of the political spectrum gets to voice their opinion.
So where do we go from here?
The first part to understand is that it’s difficult to make a legitimate anti-trust case against any of these companies – users flock to them because they provide a superior user experience. When we think of anti-trust behavior, we think of the age of robber barons and Standard Oil using predatory pricing and under the table deals to eliminate competition. This is not what Facebook or YouTube does. They simply build the service that attracts the most number of users. Regulation also tends to favor large companies because they can hire lawyers and such to make sure they are in compliance with any laws. Such a large, sudden cost could bleed a startup.
The second part is that this doesn’t make them invincible. In fact, companies often lay the seeds of their demise through their successes. The companies we see today are not the companies we will see tomorrow.
But the systemic issue will still be there.
I think the first step is to aggressively scrutinize potential acquisitions by these aggregators. The FTC and DOJ dropped the ball when they let Facebook acquire WhatsApp and Instagram. Any company with network effects should not be able to acquire another company with network effects. By containing the sphere of influence of these companies in particular areas of your life (Facebook knows the most personal information, LinkedIn knows the most about you professionally, Amazon knows most about economic behavior), we can compartmentalize their ability to harm us and the system in general.
The caveat? We need forward-thinking legislation to actually block these mergers or put severe restrictions on them.
So we’re at an impasse and to be honest, I don’t really know how to proceed from there.
As you can tell, this was not a fully formed post. I apologize for that. I struggled with it. But nonetheless, hopefully this provides a catalyst for you to think about this issue more deeply. And maybe take some solace in the fact that the topic tomorrow will be a lot more cheerful 🙂