Wednesday, December 09, 2020

“How to Save Democracy From Technology" (Fukuyama et. al.)

[This is a quick preliminary alert -- a fuller commentary is NOW ONLINE has been drafted for publication -- see this page for supporting information.]

An important new article in Foreign Affairs by Francis Fukuyama and others makes a compelling case: Few realize that the real harm from Big Tech* platforms is not just bigness or failure to self-regulate, but that they threaten democratic society, itself. They go on to suggest a fundamental remedy (emphasis added): 
Fewer still have considered a practical way forward: taking away the platforms’ role as gatekeepers of content …inviting a new group of competitive ‘middleware’ companies to enable users to choose how information is presented to them. And it would likely be more effective than a quixotic effort to break these companies up.”

The article makes a strong case that the systemic cure for this problem is to give people the power to control the “middleware” that filters our view of the information flowing through the platform in the ways that we each desire. Controlling that at a fine-grained level is beyond the skill or patience of most users, so the best way to do that is to create a diverse open market of interoperable middleware services that users can select from. The authors point out that this middleware could be funded with a revenue share from the platforms – and that, instead of reducing the platform revenue, it might actually increase it by providing better service to bring in more users and more activity. Their article is backed up by an excellent Stanford white paper that provides much more detail.

This resonates with similar proposals I have written over the past two decades. The threat to democracy is not platform control over what is posted, but their unilateral and non-transparent control over what is seen by whom. The platforms control the filters/recommenders of what we each see - and subvert that so they can engage us and sell ads. The only real solution is to delegate that control to users, so that undesirable (in the eye of the receiver) content is not amplified, and bad communities are not proselytized – all without censorship except in extreme cases. An open market is the best way to do that, to ensure the competition that brings us choice, diversity, and innovation -- and to decouple these decisions from the perverse incentives of the platforms to favor advertising revenue over user welfare.

The basic idea of an open market if filtering middleware is described in my Architecting Our Platforms to Better Serve Us -- Augmenting and Modularizing the Algorithm (building on work I began in 2002).  Part of the relevant section:

Filtering rules

Filters are central to the function of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. ... there are issues of homophily, filter bubbles, echo chambers, and fake news, and spoofing that are core to whether these networks make us smart or stupid, and whether we are easily manipulated to think in certain ways. Why do we not mandate that platforms be opened to user-selectable filtering algorithms (and/or human curators)? The major platforms can control their core services, but could allow users to select separate filters that interoperate with the platform. Let users control their filters, whether just by setting key parameters, or by substituting pluggable alternative filter algorithms. (This would work much like third party analytics in financial market data systems.) Greater competition and transparency would allow users to compare alternative filters and decide what kinds of content they do or do not want. It would stimulate innovation to create new kinds of filters that might be far more useful and smart...

Don't just prevent harm, empower benefit

My deeper proposals explore how changes in algorithms and business models could make such an open market in filtering middleware even more effective. Instead of just preventing platforms from doing harm, this could empower social media to do good, in the ways that each of us choose. That is the essence of democracy and our marketplace of ideas. Good technology can empower us, serving as "bicycles for the mind."

* While Fukuyama's article is entitled “How to Save Democracy From Technology,” this is really not a problem of technology, itself, but of badly applied technology -- bad algorithms and architectures, motivated by bad business models.

[Revised 1/23/21]

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