Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Tech Policy Press: The Internet Beyond Social Media Thought-Robber Barons

SEE IMPORTANT UPDATES BELOW, plus related items & background notes 

My new article, "The Internet Beyond Social Media Thought-Robber Barons," was published in Tech Policy Press on 4/22/21
  • It is now apparent that social media is dangerous for democracy, but few have recognized a simple twist that can put us back on track.  
  • A surgical restructuring -- an "unbundling" -- to an open market strategy that shifts control over our feeds to the users they serve -- is the only practical way to limit the harms and enable the full benefits of social media 
(This is an extensively updated and improved version of the discussion draft first posted on this blog in February, now integrating more proposals, addressing common objections, and drawing on feedback from a number of experts in the field -- and the very helpful editing of Justin Hendrix.)

I summarize and contrast these proposals:

  • Most prominently in Foreign Affairs and the Wall Street Journal by Francis Fukayama, Barak Richman, Ashish Goel, and others in the report of the Stanford Working Group on Platform Scale. (Their use of the technical term "middleware" for this approach has been picked up by some other commentators.)
  • Independently by Stephen Wolfram, Mike Masnick, and me.
  • And with what might become important real-world traction in the exploratory Bluesky initiative by Jack Dorsey at Twitter.

The article covers new ground in presenting a concrete vision of what an open market in filtering services might enable -- how this can bring individual and social purpose back to social media, to not only protect, but systematically enhance democracy, and how that can augment human wisdom and social interaction more broadly. That vision should be of interest to thoughtful citizens as well as policy professionals.

I welcome your feedback and support for these proposals, and can be reached at intertwingled [at] teleshuttle [dot] com.



  • [7/21/21]
    A very interesting five-article debate on these unbundling/middleware proposals, all headed The Future of Platform Power, is in the Journal of Democracy, responding to Fukuyama's April article there. Fukayama responds to the other four commentaries (which include a reference to my Tech Policy Press article). The one by Daphne Keller, consistent with her items noted just below, is generally supportive of this proposal, while providing a very constructive critique that identifyies four important concerns. As I tweeted in response, "“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads” – get our best minds to think about empowering us in whatever ways fulfill us! @daphnehk problem list is a good place to start, not to end." I plan to post further comments on this debate soon.

  • [6/15/21]
    Very insightful survey analysis of First Amendment issues relating to proposed measures for limiting harmful content on social media -- and how most run into serious challenges -- in Amplification and Its Discontents, by Daphne Keller (a former Google Associate General Counsel, now at Stanford, 6/8/21). Wraps up with discussion of proposals for "unbundling" of filtering services: "An undertaking like this would be very, very complicated. It would require lawmakers and technologists to unsnarl many knots.... But unlike many of the First Amendment snarls described above, these ones might actually be possible to untangle." Keller provides a very balanced analysis, but I read this as encouraging support on the legal merits of what I have proposed: the way to preserve freedom of expression is to protect users freedom of impression -- not easy, but the only option that can work. Keller's use of the term "unbundling" is also helpful in highlighting how this kind of remedy has precedent in antitrust law.
    + Interview with Keller on this article by Justin Hendrix of Tech Policy Press, Hard Problems: Regulating Algorithms & Antitrust Legislation (6/20/21).
    + Added detail on the unbundling issues is in Keller's 9/9/20 article, If Lawmakers Don't Like Platforms' Speech Rules, Here's What They Can Do About It. Spoiler: The Options Aren't Great.
  • Another perspective on the how moderation conflicts with freedom is in On Social Media, American-Style Free Speech Is Dead (Gilad Edelman, Wired 4/27/21), which reports on Evelyn Douek's more international perspective. Key ideas are to question the feasibility of American-style binary free speech absolutism and shift from categorical limits to more proportionality in balancing societal interests. I would counter that the decentralization of filtering to user choice enables proportionality and balance to emerge from the bottom up, where it has a democratic validity as "community law," rather that being imposed from the top down as "platform law." The Internet is all about decentralized control -- why should we sacrifice freedom of speech to a failure of imagination in managing a technology that should enhance freedom? Customized filtering can provide a receiver-specific richness of proportionality that better balances rights of impression with nuanced freedom of expression. Douek rightly argues that we must accept an error rate in moderation -- why not expect a bottom up, user-driven error rate to be more open and responsive to evolving wisdom and diverse community standards than one applied across the board?
  • [5/18/21]
    Clear insights on the new dynamics of social media - plus new strategies for controlling disinformation with friction, circuit-breakers, and crowdsourced validation in How to Stop Misinformation Before It Gets Shared, by Renee DiResta and Tobias Rose-Stockwell (Wired 3/26/21). Very aligned with my article (but stops short of the contention that democracy cannot depend on the platforms to do what is needed).
  • [5/17/21]
    Important support and suggestions related to Twitter's Bluesky initiative from eleven members of the Harvard Berkman Klein community are in A meta-proposal for Twitter's bluesky project (3/31/21). They are generally aligned with the directions suggested in my article.
  • [4/22/21]
    Another piece by Francis Fukuyama that addresses his Stanford group proposal is in the 
    Journal of DemocracyMaking the Internet Safe for Democracy, April, 2021.
    (+See 7/21/21 update, above, for follow-ups.)


Related items by me:  see the Selected Items tab.


Personal note: The roots of these ideas

This background might be useful to make it more clear where I am coming from...

These ideas have been brewing throughout my long career (bio), with a burst of activity very early on, then around 2002-3, and increasingly in the past decade. They are part of a rich network that intertwingles with my better-known work on FairPay and several of my patented inventions. Some background on these roots may be helpful.

I was first enthused by the potential of what we now call social media around 1970, when I had seen early hypertext systems (pre-cursors of the Web) by Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart, and then studied systems for collaborative “social” decision support by Murray Turoff and others, rolling into an independent study graduate school course on collaborative systems. All of this oriented me to the spirit of using computers for augmenting human intelligence (including social intelligence) -- not replacing it with artificial intelligence. 

My first proposals for an open market in media filtering were inspired by the financial industry parallels. An open market in filters for news and market data analytics was emerging when I worked for Standard & Poor's and Dow Jones around 1990. Filters and analytics would monitor raw news feeds and market data (price ticker) feeds, select, and analyze that raw information using algorithms and parameters chosen by the user, and work within any of a variety of trading platforms.

I drew on all of that when designing a social decision support system for large-scale open innovation and collaborative development of early-stage ideas around 2002. That design featured an open market for reputation-based ranking algorithms essentially as proposed here. Exposure to Google PageRank, which distilled human judgment and reputation for ranking Web search results, inspired me to broaden Google's design to distill the wisdom of the crowd as reflected in social media interactions, using a nuanced multi-level reputation system.

By 2012 it was becoming apparent that the Internet was seriously disrupting the marketplace of ideas, and Cass Sunstein’s observations about surprising validators inspired me to adapt my methods to social media. I became active in groups that were addressing those concerns and more fully recast my earlier designs to focus on social media, and to address architectural and regulatory strategies (here and then here). My other work on innovative business models for digital services also gave me a unique perspective on better alternatives to the perverse incentives of the ad model.

The Fukuyama article late last year was gratifying validation on the need for an open, competitive market for feed filtering services driven by users, and inspired me to refocus on that as the most direct point of leverage for structural remediation, as expanded on here.

My thanks to the many researchers and activists in this field I have had the privilege of interacting with and who have provided invaluable stimulation, feedback, suggestions, and support. And special thanks to Justin Hendrix for his very helpful editing, and to those who reviewed and commented on earlier versions of this article: Renee DiResta, Yael Eisenstat, Gene Kimmelman, Ellen Goodman, Molly Land, and Sam Lessin.

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