Can antitrust and competition rules dilute the power of social media platforms and tech companies?

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After social media companies such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest banned President Trump in the wake of the Jan.6 attack on the United States Capitol, lawmakers around the world have expressed concern over the power that big tech companies have amassed over the years to control online speech. For years, Republicans in Congress have accused Facebook and Twitter of using their power to censor conservative discourse. Likewise, Democrats have called for greater accountability from tech companies for bad behavior, including content moderation actions and policies.

Governments around the world are seeking to restore the balance of power, introducing new laws and proposals to increase platform liability for harmful online content, and discussing ways to use antitrust and competition rules. to dilute the influence of Big Tech. While antitrust and competition policies cannot solve all of the problems posed by large social media platforms and tech companies, increasing competition and reducing the dominance of one or two companies are essential to ensure l agency users in the social media space and reduce the control of a handful of companies over our social discourse. Government efforts to rebalance power dynamics should be careful not to inadvertently entrench the dominance of several large tech companies and should seek to increase democratic oversight, transparency and user agency.

The competition solution

In the United States, some lawmakers have linked issues with the market dominance of large tech companies to their control over online speech and the corresponding lack of accountability for their decisions about online content. Antitrust tools have been suggested as part of the solution to online speech issues, as disrupting large platforms would lead to more competition and crucially dilute the power of a single platform to take decisions. decisions that control the whole sphere. While limiting the power of big tech companies and promoting more innovation in the marketplace is generally positive, antitrust tools cannot solve all the problems of disinformation, the conundrums of content moderation, echo chambers, or plethora of other issues arising from social media platforms with business models based on mass surveillance and user manipulation.

However, a promising idea has emerged at the intersection of competition and content curation that offers the potential to solve some of these problems while fostering innovation and transferring choice to users: unbundling (proposals globally similar have been called “magic APIs,” “protocols and non-platforms” and “middleware”, among others). As part of the unbundling requirements, a social media platform like Facebook could be forced to separate its role of hosting content from its role of content curation, and allow other content curators to operate. on top of its platform, thus providing users with alternative recommendation systems. Unbundling requirements were used in earlier telecommunications regulations, where competing services were allowed to compete on the same infrastructure. In his article “Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech,” Mike Masnick compares the potential setup to email, which sees a variety of email services (Gmail, Outlook, Yahoo) operate on open standards or protocols, which are interoperable, that is to say that we can, for example, send mail from a Gmail account to the Yahoo account of another person and have costs of relatively weak switching.

There are many challenges associated with this vision, including questions about the point of service: Does Facebook still manage the hosting platform and does it keep all user data, or does it exist? it has an open “social media” protocol and is Facebook one of the many middleware services running on it? Switching to this model also has serious implications for user privacy and various technical challenges. It has been suggested that the antitrust case against Facebook brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could help push the needle in that direction, if regulators claim that moderation of Facebook content is a separate market in which it is. favors himself and unfairly prevents others from competing in this space.

Balancing power

A common argument is that social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter are natural monopolies in their spheres due to network effects: the more people there are on a given network, the more useful it becomes for users who are searching. to connect with friends. Following this logic indicates that splitting Facebook into several smaller social media companies would only win and replace the old Facebook as the dominant platform. However, this is only true if platforms are allowed to pursue anti-competitive behavior that holds users hostage due to a lack of interoperability, data portability, or competition at each layer. The current antitrust cases filed by the FTC and proposed bills in the United States House of Representatives have the potential to change this, although competition policy is not a cure for all of the Big Tech problems that plague our public sphere. Further actions to disrupt existing business models that encourage content curation based on maximizing user engagement and emotional response are needed to move the industry away from user exploitation and manipulation. This includes possible data portability and interoperability requirements, comprehensive privacy protections, regulation of advertising and targeted advertising markets based on protected classes, and giving users more. control over the data collected and how it is used to organize their online experience.

Ultimately, the big tech regulation debate is a power debate. In this power struggle, government authoritarianism is not preferable to corporate authoritarianism, and vice versa. Any approach to rule in Big Tech should put user rights and agency at the center.

The article was first published in ORF

Disclaimer:The author is program manager at ORF America

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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