It seems like only a few years ago, the entire world was enamored of Big Tech and the Internet — and pretty much everyone was trying to emulate their most successful players. But now, to watch the news reports and listen to the politicians, the Internet and Big Tech are Our Enemies, responsible for everything from mass shootings to drug addiction, from depression to child abuse, and seemingly most other ills that any particular onlooker finds of concern in our modern world.
The truth is much more complex, and much more difficult to comfortably accept. For the fundamental problems we now face are not the fault of technology in any form, they are fully the responsibility of human beings. That is, as Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
What’s more, most users of social media and other Internet services don’t realize how much they have to lose as a result of the often politically motivated faux “solutions” being proposed (and in some cases already passed into law) that could literally cripple many of the sites that billions of us have come to depend upon in our daily lives.
Hate speech, for example, was not invented by the Internet. While it can certainly be argued that social media increased its distribution, the intractable nature of the problem is clearly demonstrated by calls from the Right to leave most hate speech available as legal speech (at least in the U.S. — other countries have different legal standards regarding speech), while the Left (and many other countries) want hate speech removed even more rapidly. Both sides propose draconian penalties for failures to comply with their completely opposite demands.
In the U.S., some states have already passed laws explicitly prohibiting Big Tech from removing wide ranges of speech, much of which would be considered hateful and/or outright disinformation. These laws are currently unenforced due to court actions, but not on a permanent basis at this time.
The utter chaos that would be triggered by enforcement of such laws and associated attempts to undermine crucial Communications Decency Act Section 230 are obvious. If firms are required by law not to remove speech that they consider to be dangerous misinformation or hate speech, they will almost certainly find themselves cut off from key service providers that they need to stay in operation, who won’t want to keep doing business with them. Perhaps laws would then be passed to try require that those providers not cut off social media firms in such cases. But what of advertisers who do not wish to be associated with vile content? Laws to force them to continue advertising on particular sites are unlikely in the extreme.
Similar dilemmas apply to most other areas of Big Tech and the Internet that are now the subject of seemingly endless condemnation. There are calls for end-to-end encryption of chat systems and other direct messaging to protect private conversations from outside surveillance and tampering — but there are simultaneously demands that governments be able to see into these conversations to try detect child abuse or possible mass shooter events before they occur. Another enormous category of conflicting demands will arise as the U.S. Supreme Court drastically scales back fundamental protections for women.
Even if encryption were banned (a ban that we know would never be anywhere near 100% effective), the sheer scale of the Internet in general, and of social media in particular, are such that no currently imaginable combination of human beings and artificial intelligence could usefully scan and differentiate false positives from genuine threats among the nearly inconceivably enormous volumes of data involved. False positives have real costs — they divert scarce resources from genuine threats where those resources are desperately needed.
Big Tech now finds itself firmly between the proverbial rock and the hard place. Governments, politicians, and others are demanding changes that in many cases aren’t only in 180 degree opposition (“Take down violating posts faster! No, leave them up — taking them down is censorship!”), but are also calling for technologically impractical approaches to monitoring social media (both public postings and private messages/chats) at scale. Many of these demands would lead inevitably to requiring virtually all social media posts to be pre-moderated and pre-approved before being permitted to be seen publicly. Every public post. Every private chat. Every live stream throughout the totality of its existence.
Only in such or similar ways could social media firms meet the demands being strewn upon it, even if the inherent conflicts in demands from different groups and political factions could somehow be harmonized, even leaving aside associated privacy concerns.
But this is actually entirely academic at the kinds of scales at which users currently post to social media. Such pre-moderation is not possible in any kind of effective way without drastically reducing the total volume of user content that is made available.
This would leave Big Tech with only one likely practical path forward. Firms would need to drastically and dramatically reduce the amount of UGC (User Generated Content) that is submitted and publicly posted. All manner of postings — written, video, audio, prerecorded content and live streams, virtually everything that any user might want other users to see, would need to be curtailed. A tiny percentage compared with what is seen today might continue to be publicly surfaced after the required pre-moderation, but this would be a desert ghost town compared to today’s social media landscape.
There are some observers who upon reading this might think to themselves, “So what? To hell with social media! The Internet and the world will be better without it.” But this is fundamentally wrong. The ability of ordinary people to communicate with many others — without having to channel through traditional mass media gatekeepers — has been one of the most essential liberating aspects of the Internet. The appropriate responses to the abusive ways that some persons have chosen to use these capabilities do not include permitting governments to decimate a crucial aspect of the Internet’s empowerment of individuals.
Ultimately might governments expand their monitoring edicts to include email? Will attempts to ban VPNs become mainstream around the planet? There’s no reason to assume that governments demanding mass data surveillance would ultimately hesitate in any of these respects.
Of course, if this is what voters really want, it’s what their politicians will likely provide them. Possible alternatives that might help to limit some abuses — one suggestion at least worth discussing is requiring social media firms to confirm the identities of users posting to large groups before such postings are visible — may not be seriously considered. We shall see.
Unfortunately, most users of the Internet and social media are ill-informed about the realities of these situations. Most of what they are seeing on these topics is political rhetoric devoid of crucial technological contexts. They are purposely kept uninformed regarding the ramifications of the false “remedies” that some politicians and haters of Big Tech are spewing forth daily.
We are on the cusp of having major parts of our daily lives seriously disrupted by political demands that would wither away many of the services on the very sites that are so important to us all.