We have created a monster in the internet machine

TECHNOLOGY

We were warned. The venture capitalist and Netscape founder Marc Andreessen wrote a widely read essay in 2011 titled, Why Software Is Eating the World. But we didn’t take Andreessen seriously; we thought it was only a metaphor. Now we face the problem of extracting the world from the jaws of internet platform monopolies.

I used to be a technology optimist, during a 35-year career investing in the Silicon Valley’s best. Among the highlights of my career were early investments in Google and Amazon and being a mentor to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

Each new wave of technology increased productivity. Each new platform was easier to use. Technology powered globalisation and economic growth. For decades, it made the world a better place. We assumed it always would.

Then came 2016, when the internet revealed two dark sides.

One is related to individual users. Smartphones created the first content-delivery platform that was available 24/7, transforming the technology industry and the lives of two billion users. With little or no regulatory supervision, Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba and Tencent used techniques common in propaganda and casino gambling, such as constant notifications and variable rewards, to foster addiction.

The other dark side is geopolitical. In the United States, Western Europe and Asia, internet platforms, especially Facebook, enable the powerful to inflict harm on the powerless. Elections across Europe and in the US have demonstrated that automated social networks can be exploited to undermine democracy.

Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election also revealed that Facebook provides significant relative advantages to negative messages over positive ones. Authoritarian governments can use Facebook to promote public support for repressive policies. In some cases, Facebook actually provides support to such governments, as it does to all large clients.

I am confident that the founders of Facebook, Google and other major platforms did not intend to cause harm when they adopted their business models. They spent years building huge audiences by reorganising the online world around a set of applications that were more personalised and convenient than their predecessors. And they made no attempt to monetise their efforts until long after users were hooked. The advertising business models they chose were leveraged by personalisation, which enabled advertisers to target their messages with unprecedented precision.

But then came the smartphone, which transformed all media and effectively gave Facebook, Google and others control over information. The personalised filters had the effect of polarising populations and eroding fundamental democratic institutions (most notably, the free press). And the automation that made the platforms profitable left them vulnerable to manipulation by malign actors.

As Andreessen warned us, these companies, with their global reach, are eating the world economy. In the process, they are adopting versions of Facebook’s corporate philosophy — “move fast and break things” — without regard for the effect on people and institutions. People live in bubbles created by these platforms — digital false realities in which existing beliefs become more rigid and extreme.

In the US, about one-third of the adult population has become impervious to new ideas. Such people are easy to manipulate, a concept that former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris calls “brain hacking”.

Western democracies are unprepared to deal with this threat. The US has no effective regulatory framework and lacks the political will to create one. The European Union has both a regulatory framework and the political will but neither is adequate. The EU’s recent judgment against Google — a record $2.7-billion fine for anti-competitive behaviour — was well conceived but insufficient.

We are at a critical juncture. Awareness of the risks posed by these platforms is growing but their convenience is such that it may take a generation to effect change. Recognition of the corrosive effect of platform monopolies on competition and innovation is greater in Europe than in the US but no one has found an effective regulatory strategy. Awareness that the platforms can be manipulated to undermine democracy is also growing but Western governments have yet to devise a defence against it.

The problems posed by internet platform monopolies require new approaches. We must recognise and address these as a threat to public health — treating social media like tobacco and alcohol, combining education and regulation.

For the sake of restoring balance to our lives and hope to our politics, it is time to disrupt the disrupters. — © Project Syndicate

Roger McNamee is a co-founder of Elevation Partners and an early investor in Facebook, Google and Amazon

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