WASHINGTON, September 27, 2021 – Authors of a book about systemic problems in Big Tech argued Friday that antitrust regulators simply pushing for the breaking up of large companies will not solve the inherent problems that will inevitably spawn more of the same.
In an online event on Friday, professor at Stanford, Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami, and Jeremy Weinstein — in discussing a book they wrote and published earlier month called System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot — said we won’t find a silver bullet in antirust or data privacy law when it comes to dealing with big tech.
“We’re actually going to have to tackle these issues by looking at the ethic of responsibility in technology companies, thinking about the corporate power that has been concentrated in a small number of firms, but also how we set in place a set of democratic institutions that are capable of governing tech.”
Breaking up a “couple large companies” or enacting a hypothetical “data privacy law” without addressing the underlying systemic roots of these issues, the authors’ said, will only doom the next great technological change to make the same types of massive generational harms which we’re tackling now.
Washington is on the cusp of a potentially monumental change in how it approaches big technology companies and the alleged market concentration of a handful from out west.
The House has before it six antitrust bills targeting big technology companies, which passed the chamber’s judiciary committee in June. The goal of the bills is to rein in the power of Big Tech through new antitrust liability provisions, including new merger and acquisition review, measures to prevent anticompetitive activity, and providing government enforcers more power to break-up or separate big businesses.
At the helm of the Federal Trade Commission, which has taken Facebook to court over alleged anticompetitive practices, is Amazon critic Lina Khan. And enlisted to help with the Department of Justice’s antitrust matters is Google critic Jonathan Kanter.
At an Institute for Policy Innovation event on Wednesday, observers were worried that there is emerging a drastic approach by Washington that views “big is bad,” and that attitude could stunt smaller companies wanting to make it big.
One systemic issue Reich raised is that while technology is often seen as objective and value neutral, it is truly encoded with the values of the technologists who created it. Technologists are the only ones who have “a say” in the trade-offs and decisions made at a fundamental level in the creation of new algorithms, machines and platforms. “Any technology encodes within it a set of important choices that we all ought to have a say in refereeing,” he argues.
Questions of specific regulatory and policy decisions are fraught with drawbacks and reconsiderations. In this vein, Sahami stated that “sometimes people wonder if I took Facebook and broke it up into 10 little Facebooks would that solve the problem? And by itself it probably wouldn’t unless we got some really strong interoperability guarantees that allowed for information to migrate between different platforms.”
Without such interoperability, Mehran worries, we would just see a “reconsolidation” of the platforms.
Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Says Biden is Inappropriately Exhorting the Agency
Former Chairman William Kovacic said that Biden’s direction of the FTC raises expectations for the agency.
WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A former Federal Trade Commission chairman criticized the Biden administration’s direction of the FTC to accomplish the president’s antitrust goals.
At a Wednesday forum of the Mercatus Institute, former FTC Chairman William Kovacic criticized Joe Biden’s “instruction, direction, and exhortation” to the FTC, which is an independent agency and not part of the executive branch.
In July, President Biden directed regulators to craft rules preventing manufacturers like Microsoft and Apple from restrict consumers’ ability to fix their own devices. After the FTC voted unanimously to increase its enforcement against “right to repair” restrictions, both Microsoft and Apple announced plans for consumers to repair their own products.
Kovacic said that Biden almost appears to have the attitude that he “gave [the FTC and DOJ] an assignment” to advance the Biden administration’s consumer protection goals.
Then imagining that he was arguing from the perspective of the Biden administration, Kovacic said Biden could argue that he gave the FTC “an assignment to work on those guidelines and an exhortation to the FTC to get the work done,” as opposed to specific marching orders on the topics.
Mismatched capabilities at the FTC
Kovacic, who served as a commissioner at the FTC beginning in 2006, and who chaired the agency from 2008 to 2009, said the FTC has a history of mismatching its commitments with its capabilities.
In developing consumer protection programs, currently a professor of law at George Washington University, said the FTC often fails to ask “basic questions about who would do it, how long it would take, how much it would cost, and whether or not the institution has the credibility or capacity” to administer successful programs.
Kovacic said that in order to achieve a successful regulatory agenda, there must be a “stability of perspectives” that will endure across administrations.
Policymakers should be mindful not to abandon the resistance from total regulatory overhaul that he said “afflicted” his predecessors as chairs of the agency.
“Everybody will step forward and say, ‘I have my list.’ I suspect the Commission already is getting a letter each day from members of Congress saying, ‘here’s another one.’”
Recalling the many prior presidents’ push for regulators to control petroleum prices – including by President Biden in November – Kovacic said the FTC can’t always deliver.
“Whenever there’s going to be a problem the new leadership, seen as competition policy superheroes, will be exhorted to do something, and it will not be an adequate response to say, ‘we’ve already got a lot on the agenda, we’ll get to it when we can.'”
Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet
Social media platforms are harming Iran due to their ignorance of Iranian culture and the nation’s primary dialects.
WASHINGTON, January 28, 2022 – A lack of cultural understanding by Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms is a prevailing reason for inaccurate content moderation in Iran, Middle East experts said.
Moreover, and they said, Iran’s proposed international internet replacement, the National Information Network, is dangerously close to coming into effect.
Speaking at a Thursday event of the Atlantic Council designed to draw attention to the current status of social media in Iran, a human rights expert said that Big Tech’s chronic misunderstanding of the Persian language leads to censorship of content that is either entertainment-based or posted by Iranian activists.
Panelists at the event also highlighted a new report “Iranians on #SocialMedia,” as the inspiration for the discussion.
Facebook “needs someone who actually understands what is going on on the ground,” claimed Simin Kargar, a human rights and technology research fellow at Digital Forensic Research Lab. Because the company don’t employ or contract with such people, said Kargar, the platform and its sister Instagram are inappropriately censoring posts in the country.
Because of the platforms’ negligence in understanding and adapting to local concerns, the Iranian people are not benefiting from the internet.
And – because Iran also heavily monitoring and censoring the internet within its borders, the Iranian people end up being hindered by the double-whammy of Iranian and Facebook censorship, Kargar said.
Iranian censorship and Facebook censorship
Mahsa Alimardani, a researcher with the human rights organization Article19, agreed that misconceptions due to language are a dangerous foe. She made this comment when asked what America can do to help and whether American sanctions have played play a part in the rise in content moderation.
All panelists at the event said that while American sanctions against Iran impact the internet in the country, they are not responsible for what is currently happening in Iran.
However, Alimardani also blamed Meta, the new corporate name for the company that runs Facebook and Instagram, for improper and excessive content moderation.
She said Facebook currently flag anything related to the Iranian guard after the Trump Administration created a list of dangerous people that should be restricted on social media. She disagreed that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be listed as a foreign terrorist organization.
Is the National Information Network a new model for authoritarian regimes?
The National Information Network, the new censored internet that Iran is currently working to implement, had been planned to launch in March. Alimardani said she believes that the release will be postponed because of disagreements about who within the government will control content moderation, and the impact the firewall could have on Iranian tech companies.
Alimardani highlighted the unique nature of the Iranian law that created the national internet. Instead of being voted on by the Iranian Parliament, the legislative body deferred action on the creation of a permanent national internet only until after an experimental period with the firewall, she said.
Yet the government has been pushing its own online streaming and video platforms. These platforms are part of the government’s attempt to incentivize an Iranian national “internet.”
Throwing cheap broadband into a censored internet to sweeten the pot?
Essentially, said Kargar, the government is promising more bandwidth at a lower cost through the National Information Network. The new network is also appealing to Iranian consumers because the NIN will primarily be in the country’s major dialect.
Holly Dagres, a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs and the author of the “Iranians on #SocialMedia”, also spoke on the NIN. She said it would take Iran back to the Middle Ages, and also limit communication with other Iranians and with the outside world.
Consolidation, Bloat, and a Waning American ‘Brand’ Hurt the Economy, Says Tim Wu
He argued that fundamental changes must be made to restore peoples’ faith in an American system that works for everyone.
WASHINGTON, January 26, 2022 –White House Special Assistant Tim Wu said Wednesday that the U.S. economy is over-consolidated and bloated in the middle.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Wu, a member of the National Economic Council with a portfolio over Technology and Competition Policy, argued that that the “American dream” has suffered major setbacks in recent decades.
Wu, who is credited with coining the term “net neutrality” and a longstanding critic of telecom monopolies, has more recently become an outspoken critic of big technology companies.
- Broadband Breakfast Explainer 1 (Net Neutrality): On the Cusp of Sea Change, Broadband Breakfast Examines the Net Neutrality Debate
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“We can see very vividly how fragile this concentrated economic system we built has been and how poorly it is working for the whole country,” Wu said.
“Our country has become too centralized. It is too national in its character – in terms of where businesses are location – too centered on consumption, as opposed to production.
“Too many of the [economic] returns go to too few people who often live very far away from the communities they serve.”
Hearkening to the post-World War II decades in which Western nations endorsed significant government intervention in the economy as part of social democracy, Wu said that America is “relearning the virtues and merits of a mixed economy – that is the truer American tradition of small and medium business – market structures where [people] can all survive and prosper; what [President Joe Biden] calls ‘an economy that works for everyone.’”
Can elements of a new form of social democracy be revived in a technology-drenched age?
Wu distilled his criticisms to three primary points: Too many industries have become too consolidated, a bloated “middleman” economy has emerged, and the “American brand” has diminished.
“We have all seen so many industries consolidate into just the ‘big three’ or ‘big four,’” Wu said. “That is a traditional problem that I think extracts a lot from the economy.”
Wu went on to explain the “middleman” economy – a rise of a “highly concentrated middle layer” across many industries. This bloat on the processing end takes place somewhere between the inception of a product or service and the consumer is extracting too much revenue, Wu said.
“When you think about monopoly – which is just high prices – it leads to this problem where the middlemen have power over their suppliers and are able to squeeze their suppliers and also often able to squeeze their employees,” Wu said. This is “a new kind of problem for the economy, and one that we need to face.”
What is the ‘American brand’?
Wu’s final point related to what he referred to as the “American brand.”
“There has been a real sense that the sense of opportunity that has been the ‘American brand’ has diminished,” he said. “The statistics are a little depressing that confirm this.”
75 percent of U.S. industries are controlled by fewer companies than they were 20 years ago, Wu said. He pointed to mergers that skyrocketed in the 1980s and predicted that 2022 will feature a record number of mergers.
“These are real challenges and I just want to assure you that the administration of the White House is very focused on [them] and we see it not just in terms of the economy, but in terms of the Democratic soul of this nation,” Wu said. “Freedom and opportunity are not trivial things when it comes to describing what democracy is all about.
- Federal Appeals Court Upholds California’s Net Neutrality Rules
- FCC Announces New RDOF Accountability and Transparency Measures, Additional Funding
- Commerce Vote on Sohn Wednesday, Facebook Abandoning its Crypto Technology, Low EBB Awareness
- Former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Says Biden is Inappropriately Exhorting the Agency
- Federal Communications Commission Approves New Provider Transparency Requirements
- Facebook is Failing Iranians, and Iran’s Leaders Are About to Launch a Censored Internet
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