Week 8: corporate power

#1

I’m so sorry to have missed this lecture! April is a powerhouse of a journalist and one of my best friends, and I was looking forward to having this conversation with her. But I guess I had to get surgery or whatever.

I still haven’t seen the lecture video, but here is some fodder for this week’s discussion:

  • Discuss the business model of the internet and how corporations use data toward their bottom lines
  • Discuss the major issues with this business model
  • How were these companies allowed to grow unchecked for so long?
  • What kinds of policy interventions are possible?
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#2

oh also, Howard told me about two ideas that came out of the chat:

-An exercise in cutting up magazines to see how advertising is inserted (could be used as part of a library’s privacy or infolit workshops)
-Focus on local news, events, etc. to get people away from these mass distributors (setting library web browser home to display these)

Anyone want to elaborate on these ideas?

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#3

One of the most helpful things that I thought came of our conversation with April was the idea of repeating over and over again that Google and FB are advertising and data collection companies. So, when librarians talk about them we should call them advertising and data collection companies as opposed to calling them a search engine and social networking site. While they do have those functions, the way they currently exist in the world is to advertise things. Just changing the way we speak about them to patrons, to each other, to anyone could at least help move our collective mindset closer to understanding what the companies actually do as opposed to the way individual users engage with them.

April suggested that one of the best things for us to do is to be instrumental in rebuilding out local communities. One idea was to focus on the local on a library’s web presence, but she also encouraged us to help make public libraries a space were local communities can come together face-to-face. She emphasized that way humans interact with the web is designed to create boredom to drive us back to the web. If people had fun, engaging, and free places to do and see each other in person, then maybe we could re-build connections in person on the local level.

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#4

I really liked how she ended on focusing on the local. The idea of having the front page of library computers set to local news rather than Google is a really good one and again makes me wish I worked at an actual library instead of a system! I will pass that idea off to our members as I get a chance.

The internet is awesome in so many ways, but I think face-to-face work is going to get us out of some messes. Related, this thread from Asha Rangappa about the NYC blackout and building a bridge resonates: https://mobile.twitter.com/AshaRangappa_/status/1150552141402128384
(I lived in NYC during the 2003 blackout - my experience was AMAZING. People were so good to each other, and the ones that weren’t called out by the community.)

I’ll keep up the drumbeat: Google and Facebook and Amazon and the rulers of our internet life, and they are corporations that exist to make money and collect data. But we can push back on that governance by creating community outside of their corporations.

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#5

When April was talking about local communities, I immediately thought about the Nextdoor app. I’m sure many of you know of this app, but it is a neighborhood-centric social media network. It has had it’s share of controversy in reporting crimes and reinforcing stereotypes/racism. I also thought of the book, Bowling Alone, which is about the decline of communities in America. It was written about 20 years ago, so social media wasn’t on it’s radar.

Personal data is a commodity now. I believe that legislation can’t keep up with the speed of technology so in turn, the processing and capturing of data is dictated by corporations. FB and Google have gone unchecked for so long because of this and they probably prefer it, since they are the ones in control of the data. Like other commodities, whichever corporation is able to control the data will profit the most from it.

I would hope that this gets regulated, because I also feel like we’ve placed too much trust into algorithms and AI from collected data that it is being used for to make very impactful decisions (resource allocations and elections for instance).

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#6

I read Bowling Alone maybe 15 years ago and found it fascinating. Seems like an updated edition would be in order, given the societal changes based on social media, smartphones, etc.

I found what April said about some conservative skeptics having more trust in local news than (purportedly liberal leaning) national media news sources. My library system defaults to our library homepage when patrons sign into public terminals. Our homepage mostly links to rotating library resources and events, but I could see having some sort of thematic news-related section. I think it is completely within the library’s purview to promote authoritative news sources.

One thing that I really do not understand is why social media platforms don’t lean on their terms of service more heavily to boot off people in clear violation (ahem, Twitter and Trump). As April said, freedom of speech doesn’t equal freedom to broadcast your speech. I suppose there are all sorts of complications of who gets shut down and who doesn’t (and the bias that could stem from an AI system that determines this), but if YouTube can ban Alex Jones, there’s a precedent.

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#7

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

They make a ton of money off that shit, they are business and want to maximize profits, plus Jack has no spine.

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#8

Yep. It’s all about the money. I do not have a business-y outlook, so I have trouble remembering that these are corporations who, at the end of the day, are trying to amass as much money as possible.

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#9

The question I couldn’t for the life of me formulate during April’s talk:
Last week, a court handed down a decision against Trump who’d been sued for violating the First Amendment rights of critics for blocking them on Twitter. I understand that this is ostensibly in the context of Trump being an elected official. Of course, right wing chuds almost immediately filed in court against Rep. Ocasio-Cortes. I can just imagine the shit she receives on there.
Without having read the decision, I am wondering who is compelled to respond to the court; the account holder or is there something a platform must enact or enforce? Is it a court order to unblock everybody or just a particular user? Under what circumstances can an elected official on Twitter (or any other social media platform for that matter) block another user?
It also begs a question about private corporations (in line with your comment TJ, “$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$”) and that they are essentially the stewards of speech rights online, but are they up to or even remotely interested in performing the task?

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#10

That’s a great line, Junior, “personal data is a commodity now.” Where I hesitate is that I’m not sure that I believe that legislation can’t keep up with the speed of technology. Looking at the EU’s GDPR, I believe that all the lobbying that Facebook, Google, and Apple are doing directly impacts the lack of legislation that we are seeing on these fronts (https://nyti.ms/2WgiNIH).

April’s discussion about how people trust local sources and that it is important for us us to focus on our local populations/sources made an impact on me as well. We are in a small, rural community, and our library has partnered with community members, including the local newspaper, to host a information resource fair for the past two years. April statement that the way to build trust is to build relationships really resonated with me and as I am currently working on other projects with community members, I will have an eye on building those relationships to see how we can partner on privacy education and legislation and hopefully ramp up the conversations that have already started.

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#11

business model of the internet: The current business model of the internet mirrors it’s physical infrastructure: centralized networks & resource exploitation. The internet right now, including the servers which host sites and platforms, are extremely centralized and mostly ruled/regulated by major companies based out of the West. (I need to learn more about Huawei & also the ways that social media giants are impacting communities in the global South - so my understanding of the internet right now is truthfully (& unfortunately) very western-centric).

The ways that companies make money on the internet: ads, behavioral data, and the collection of personalized information under the guise of connection and “community.”

issues with this business model: people are exiled from their own behavior and decisions (see: Zuboff, 2015).

companies go unchecked because:

  1. silicon valley/internet infrastructure (DARPA) links with military
  2. CDA 230
  3. myths of capitalism
  4. congressional inaction
  5. offshore bank accounts (avoiding taxation and allows for unchecked fiscal growth & political influence)
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#12

It’s very alarming that corporations like Facebook and Alphabet have evaded regulation for so long. It seems that the only reason why they are facing any sort of repercussions is because there is interest outside of the US via GDPR. Cambridge Analytica caused some alarm, but I’m not sure how a 5 billion dollar fine will impact Facebooks’ behavior. As we’ve seen in this week’s readings and in the posts, these companies are so busy making so much money that they are trying to run with it as long as possible, and pretend to care about ethical issues around privacy and profiting off of user data, by wanting to take part in creating these regulations. Ugh. In California the CCPA will go into effect in January 2020, but I wonder how much of an impact this will have. Could a state by state intervention help to work towards regulation? I don’t know the answer to that question, but overall, there needs to be serious oversight and protections when drafting any type of regulations, because these companies have a lot of money to fight any sort of legislation that threatens their ability to make more money.

There is so much wrong with the internet that I don’t even know where to start. After all this week’s readings, it seems an impossible job to fight all the disinformation, privacy breaches, and harassment and discrimination that occurs online. I agree with April’s call to build community, but regulating and getting corporations to act on these breaches might be the only way to fight it. Even then, getting them to comply would be another challenge.

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#13

April made a good point about how private data is used as currency, but that does not mean that we should be paid for our data. This article from Electronic Frontier Foundation goes into more detail about why that is the case. From the article:

“Our information should not be thought of as our property this way, to be bought and sold like a widget. Privacy is a fundamental human right. It has no price tag. No person should be coerced or encouraged to barter it away. And it is definitely not a good deal for people to receive a handful of dollars in exchange for allowing companies’ invasive data collection to remain unchecked.”

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#14

Absolutely agree. We have a lot of power to help change cultural narratives. Pithy, critical reframings like this are so great because people connect with them and remember them.

It seems so simple and obvious but this is the best way we have to fight back. In person interaction fosters empathy, connection, and critical thinking in a way that is without parallel.

I loved this idea too.

Mmm yes. When we try to use a platform to replace our community interactions, we get something that encourages the worst human behavior like Nextdoor does. What would these interactions be like if they happened in person? How much of our most toxic and hostile in-person interactions are fueled by the dehumanizing effects of social media?

Because of their business model. They will never kick Trump off no matter how much he violates their TOS because he’s too important to their bottom line.

I think this comes back to @Ajb’s point at the beginning of this thread…let’s always refer to these companies as advertising companies, and it will help remind us of what their real mission is (no matter what they might say about connecting people around the world and all that).

I think this would be a great question for Jessie Rossman from the ACLU when we hear from her in a few weeks.

I spoke at and attended the information fair at Western this year, and it was awesome. All libraries should do this.

So glad you brought up the centralization and resource extraction parts. The centralization one is so key to thinking about the points April brought up. A huge part of what makes these companies so problematic is how much power they’ve been able to consolidate. They operate effective monopolies over global communications.

The internet itself is very western-centric. It’s like April said, the most powerful technology companies are consolidated between Cupertino and Seattle. The internet itself is under the jurisdiction of the US government.

Hmm yeah good point. Here is how I see the relationship between the DARPA internet days and the problems we have now. The DARPA and military origins are problematic because I don’t want all technology to be funded by the military and in their interest, but the DARPA days were the closest we had to actual public internet infrastructure. To me it was the corporate influence (which was there from the beginning with eg GM/DARPA no-bid contracts and such) that really shifted the internet away from something that could be publicly accountable, a real public resource. And at the same time there was lots of influential libertarian thinking eg John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace by people who wanted the internet to be free of so-called government interference, but had nothing to say about corporate consolidation of the net. They wanted a borderless internet in the same way as neoliberal free trade agreements. Borderless for capital only. And then you have these regulatory entities like the FCC and FTC that are just completely, totally unprepared for this new world, not only because the lawmakers and staffers in them have no idea how technology works.

Facebook’s revenue for the first quarter of 2019 was $16.9 billion! They’ve paid these big fines before. I feel like at this point they just build it into the business model.

I feel a lot of despair about it, too. But we are finally at a point where our legislators are talking about breaking up these companies. Elizabeth Warren has a lot of policy proposals to this effect that I feel like will get more realistic as the election goes on. I hope she will pull the other candidates to the left on this issue as well. I do think her policy about getting people paid for their data is just…silly. The ones about breaking up the companies are a good start.

In any case, I think a diversity of tactics is important here, and we can motivate our communities to care about these issues at a scale if we do more to connect with them in grassroots ways.

Absolutely agree. Also from a technical standpoint I have no idea how you’d even create such a policy. How do you quantify the millions of ways your data is bought and sold and resold and chopped up and used to train algorithms and what have you? How do you even look at this from like, a logistics, supply chain perspective? You can’t.

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#15

Hi @CarolynGlauda! Yes! Thank you for bringing back up this point, and for finding this quote. When it came up that Senator Warren had recently proposed that people be paid every time their data was being used, one of my initial reactions to that was I did not agree and was concerned that her proposal would normalize and allow this exploitative practice.

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#16
  • How were these companies allowed to grow unchecked for so long?

Their growth is a result of federal policy that deliberately made it easier for large companies to dominate their markets, provided that they keep prices down. In the late '70s, a few influential conservatives read Robert Bork’s book “The Antitrust Paradox” and were so inspired that they went forth and succeeded in convincing the Justice Department that antitrust laws were protecting bad companies solely for the sake of keeping markets competitive. So just like that antitrust law shifted from protecting competition to “protecting” consumers. Now we’ve got spectacularly low Walmart prices, Amazon free two-day shipping, Google and Facebook are perceived as “free” (!). etc. Allowing companies to grow without fear of interference from the Justice Department has essentially lead to a small handful of companies dictating how and where 300 million people get their news, prescription drugs, groceries, entertainment, travel.

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#17

There is some precedent of libraries partnering with local news organization (or sometimes becoming the local news). These partnerships could be a great way to play to the strength of libraries being seen as trustworthy sources of information. Here is an article about some different initiatives in this area: https://niemanreports.org/articles/journalism-and-libraries-both-exist-to-support-strong-well-informed-communities/

I really like the idea of constantly referring to companies/services as advertising and/or data collection companies. I think corporations are frequently able to coast on their earlier missions or stated values–is Google still coasting on the public’s good will based on “Don’t Be Evil.” I think constantly reminding patrons about what these are can help people to start to reflect on what are the values or biases of different corporations and organizations. And maybe what can help is changing people’s thinking around the words values and bias. Having a bias is often seen as “bad” and people and organizations try to pretend they don’t have one. But we all have them. I’m a librarian. I have a bias toward information acquired, curated, and provided by libraries. What’s important is recognizing this bias and how that may impact how I help people. We have to remind people that many of these companies have a value or bias toward increasing their profits. Leaving aside if that’s “good” or “bad”, the question is with that value how might that impact their interactions with their users. Is YouTube going to direct you to the best information or where they gather the most advertising revenue?

Like others I’m pessimistic about legislative policy interventions. The companies have run unchecked for so long they have a strong vested interest in keeping it that way. I think letting legislators know that people are concerned about it and what something done will lead to some probably still too weak regulations, but it’s a start. The other side is educating patrons so that if they choose to, they can vote with their feet and limit the power of these companies.

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#18

These are great questions, Maty, for which I don’t know the answers. Just guessing here, but to me, it would make sense that AOC would be able to block people outside her congressional district. Trump is supposed to serve the whole US, so he would not be able to block anyone in the country. This is probably not how it works, but it would make logical sense to me. Plus, I am guessing there would be no way to verify which Twitter account was actually based in a given district.

Related, this goes back to my earlier question about why these social media companies have such a hard time following through on their TOS. Ilhan Omar is my congressional rep, and she takes a regular beating on Twitter, as evidenced by events this week.

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