For a variety of reasons—let's say 70% professional, 20% masochistic and 10% existential—I spend a great deal of time reading about technology. Last week, like many weeks, that meant reading about Facebook.
On May 9, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes produced an op-ed for The New York Times calling for lawmakers to break up the technology behemoth. Specifically, he backed presidential candidate and US Rep. Elizabeth Warren's (D-MA) call for the Federal Trade Commission to reverse Facebook's acquisitions in 2012 and 2014 of Instagram and WhatsApp, respectively.
Hughes' detailed narrative of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's undiluted power over the company and, thus, over its users' experience, though not surprising, was chilling; while describing his former college pal as a "good, kind person," he also noted that Zuckerberg has, essentially "unilateral" power over speech: "There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations of two billion people."
Two days later, Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president for global affairs and communications, responded, also in The New York Times, disputing Hughes' argument as well as some of Hughes' reasoning as it related to monopolies and anti-trust laws.
But Clegg did concede that social media companies represent a significant problem for society and democracy (also: the sky is blue). "If people were writing the rules for the internet from scratch today," Clegg writes, "they wouldn't want so many important social, political and ethical questions left in the hands of private companies." Nonetheless, he argues, breaking up Facebook won't fix the problem. Rather, he says, governments need to create legislative solutions that will help Facebook and other social media companies protect consumers' privacy.
The Times published both pieces as part of its Privacy Project series, which launched in April and provides a good jumping-off spot for anyone who wants to have a nervous breakdown learn more about the current state of digital privacy.
The opinion series, so far, has been wide-ranging. One article examines online ad targeting (you know, the wonderful phenomena of shopping online for a bathing suit and then seeing nothing but bathing suit ads). Another looks at facial recognition cameras in China, and how their use purportedly makes that country’s citizens feel more safe. An early April story examined insurance companies’ uses of monitoring technologies like Fitbit to surveil customers’ lifestyle habits—noting that those living healthy lives might receive lowered premiums. One column by Times writer Ross Douthat makes a convincing argument for our country’s collective willing—if haphazard—descent into a totalitarian panopticon, and a just-as-persuasive argument that the only start of a solution lies in internet-free zones. (The series, though informative, is somewhat light on advocacy—the Electronic Frontier Foundation, eff.org, provides resources if you’re looking to take action on internet privacy issues.)
I've had a recent fantasy I've shared with anyone who will listen (a shrinking number of people, I'm afraid) of a social-media-free 2020 election. Yes, I'm waxing nostalgic: I want an election without tweets, viral videos, racist bots and the like. Just to see what happens. It's a fantasy, of course, driven by digital privilege.
Barring a complete collapse of the electrical grid or personal circumstances (neither of which I'm advocating), I'm unlikely to experience an internet-free election. And neither are you. As of now, very few people live offline. Specifically, only 10% of Americans don't use the internet (in 2000, that figure was 48%). According to The Pew Research Center, which last month investigated the demographic identities of such people, internet non-users are mostly older (65+), poorer (18% of people who don't use the internet earn less than $30,000 a year) and 29% have less than a high school education.
Last week, the Pew Center examined the current state of the digital divide as part of its own series. Its most significant finding is that lower-income Americans rely on their smartphones for internet use. Two-thirds of higher-earning Americans have both multiple devices as well as broadband service at home. In lower-income families, users primarily use their phones for activities such as applying for jobs and homework (this is known as the homework gap).
Democratic legislators are pursuing various remedies to the digital divide: The Digital Equity Act of 2019 was introduced in the Senate last month; in March, US Sen. Tom Udall and US Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland of New Mexico introduced a bill to help put wifi on school buses to alleviate the homework gap for New Mexican students.
Is there a solution that bridges the space between children doing their homework on smart phones and adults doxxing one another on Twitter? Tag me if you find one.