The Great War, Part 1: The Internet vs Democracy

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The first slice of the multi-dimensional war for the future of internet governance I will examine is best framed as “The Internet vs Democracy.” In this story, the terrifying villain is the business model of targeted advertising, enriched by decades of largely unchecked data collection and behavioral profiling. According to this narrative, the designers and abusers of these engines of manipulation keep us from realizing democratic free will. I sympathize on some level; I myself am fond of saying that for too long, the internet’s culture was “collect all the data, store all the data forever and then figure out how to monetize it later.” This treasure trove of data was a fruitful recipe for innovation, but the fruit has turned poisonous with growing public concern over privacy and lost agency. Unfortunately, the dominant rhetoric of today tends not to improve understanding of the underlying problems nor provide a path toward their resolution. Rather, we have seen the internet demonized and support for questionable policy proposals grow and spread. We need to break through the storytelling and see a little deeper to find a constructive path forward.

Rather than joust a lance at every windmill in the broad “Internet vs Democracy” space—and there are very, very many—I will posit that Dr. Shoshana Zuboff has appointed herself as champion for the cause of “Democracy” with her recent New York Times opinion piece . Her central thesis is that we face a binary decision between ending the “surveillance society” or losing democracy as we know it to functional tech company oligarchy. Dr. Zuboff’s inflammatory rhetoric covers a kernel of deep truth in layers of unhelpful exaggeration. While Dr. Zuboff’s activist language will serve as a powerful rallying cry for change, any policy agenda derived directly from her work will do more harm than good. Yet the principles behind her thinking are valid, and translating them into a more constructive dialectic could unlock a better path forward.

At its heart, Dr. Zuboff is calling for an end to the practice of what she calls “surveillance capitalism.” She asserts this is the normatively correct decision, even though in her piece she seems to recognize that immediately ending data collection practices of the type she highlights would effectively destroy the internet economy—not just Facebook, but countless other businesses and individual livelihoods. Her justification that this cost is worth paying? “Markets that trade in human beings were outlawed, even when they supported whole economies.” The ecosystem we have today, where internet users can feel forced to accept tradeoffs inherent in behavioral targeting to provide valuable services at no user-facing cost, is not optimal. But equating its harms to slavery, and the immediacy of ending the practice so great that it justifies monumental economic consequences, feels like a Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge too far.

Every story is more compelling with a villain, and the year 2021 presents us with no end of evils to lay at the feet of Facebook, specifically. Even the COVID-19 pandemic, to Dr. Zuboff: “This is the world in which a deadly mysterious microorganism flourished. We turned to Facebook in search of information. Instead we found lethal strategies of epistemic chaos for profit.” More than 75 percent of Singaporean citizens use Facebook, yet that country has managed far better than the United States. The core of the American inability to contain the disease lies elsewhere, even acknowledging that social media can function to amplify misinformation despite the continuous efforts of its operators.

Facebook is far from perfect. The entire internet ecosystem is far from perfect. As Kashmir Hill’s excellent piece in The New York Times illustrates poignantly, active harm through the abuse of the internet persists, and something must be done about it. But time and energy spent indulging in rhetorical fantasies does more harm than good. Continuing down Dr. Zuboff’s path in earnest risks (at least) two very harmful outcomes. The first is legitimization of calls to repeal Section 230, the famous “twenty six words that created the internet,” as Section 230 is perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be the biggest obstacle between political will and corporate content moderation practices. Repealing or gutting the protections of Section 230 would have enormously harmful ramifications, as many including these author s have argued. The second concerning outcome is further strengthening China’s hand . The internet is global: If the United States and/or the European Union outright ban targeted advertising, mass-market technologies that many users value will be unavailable. Further, countries that champion the values of internet freedom risk finding themselves in a weird future where their internet feels repressed and stunted of its innovative capabilities as their citizens adopt Chinese technologies by choice. Or perhaps the same kinds of apps and services will be available here, but only at a steep price, furthering American socioeconomic inequality.

Fully repealing Section 230 is not realistic as a legislative path forward, or at least I certainly hope I am correct in assuming that. Instead, what we will see are debates over Section 230 reform efforts. And no recent attempt has created as much controversy and war-like reactions as the SAFE TECH Act introduced by Sens. Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono and Amy Klobuchar (see Protocol’s excellent coverage ). There’s clearly no love lost between those who believe the bill “aims to preserve the thrust of Section 230 ” and those who assert it would “destroy the open internet ,” as the days after its introduction witnessed a flurry of vicious verbal attacks taking place on the tech policy world’s favorite battleground, Twitter.

A war is not the right way to reach good policy outcomes. We can’t choose between the internet and democracy—we need both. Similarly, we must resist the natural human inclination to distill complex and nuanced policy challenges into false binary narratives. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned by harm online, as Kashmir Hill’s earlier mentioned piece illustrates. It is that kind of hard-to-untangle web of abuse that SAFE TECH appears intended in part to address, more specifically than the broader democracy harms of Dr. Zuboff’s writing, whether or not that legislation is the right vehicle for improvement.

What would help move us past false binary narratives and focus on policy proposals that can help strengthen both the internet *and* democracy? The answer is putting users back at the center of the internet. Smart reforms to promote greater transparency, accountability and user choice through interoperability are the start, not blunt hammers. We must figure out how to catalyze new business models to provide a meaningful alternative to what we have today. Not from a perspective of paternalism, forcing happy internet users into less desirable alternatives, nor from a viewpoint of vengeance, punishing those companies that have built these complex and powerful machines which we perceive as depriving us of our individual agency and collective political will. But instead from the core spirit of free market capitalism, to create an environment that enables each individual consumer to choose their technology future for themselves, and each democratic citizen to use technology to better understand, realize and strengthen their voice.

Read the full blog post, “The Great War for the future of internet governance has begun,” here .

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