- - Monday, September 10, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Big Tech is losing favor with the public and more regulation is likely.

Even conservative politicians are growing skeptical about how Amazon and Google treat business partners and users. Google, Twitter and Facebook are in the crosshairs for abusing private data, permitting fake accounts to peddle fraudulent products and disinformation and lax responses to foreign governments seeking to corrupt our elections.

Each operates in a commercial space where the “network effect” applies. For example, in the days of landline telephones, one monopoly company was worth more than three competing businesses because a single subscriber could reach everyone in town.

These days, it’s tough for manufacturers and retailers to rely only on conventional brick and mortar stores to attract consumers. With the lion’s share of web commerce on its platforms, Amazon is the compelling choice.

That permits Amazon to just about dictate prices and as it learns suppliers’ business models, pick off business for new ventures of its own. Amazon Basics offers items ranging from ladies apparel to data analytic services mimicking those of its own cloud clients.

Google, Facebook and Twitter offer the most efficient means for keeping up with the news, friends and family, spreading one’s own views widely or reading directly the immediate ruminations of public figures like President Trump and Prime Minister May. Subscribers can’t go elsewhere to get the same information, impact and immediacy, but those services must finance themselves — hence they mine personal data, and we have little leverage to limit how they use it.

The latter is not a bad bargain if they don’t abuse it. However, as we have learned from episodes like Cambridge Analytica selling services to political campaigns, laxity in ferreting out fake Russian accounts in 2016 elections and the suppression of conservative commentators, social media can be callous and cavalier about its responsibilities and impose Silicone Valley liberal biases on what ideas Americans can most readily access.

Data privacy is not hard to solve. California is enacting safeguards similar to those recently imposed by the EU that requires internet companies to be clear about the data they collect and obtain permission to mine it. However, policing bad actors, and combating West Coast liberal piety are other matters altogether.

Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, who encouraged activists to harass Trump administration officials, still has Twitter and Facebook accounts. Do you suppose I would still have either if I organized early morning demonstrations outside her residence with the specific intention of keeping her from her congressional duties or encouraging her resignation?

Even more menacing are proposals that the thought and speech police should be institutionalized — similar to syllabus and speech codes that are destroying the free exchange of ideas at America’s universities.

In a well-meaning proposal, the director of the Personal Democracy Forum suggests that a multi-stakeholder content congress be privately organized — akin to the private bodies that manage Internet protocols — to advise web companies about criteria for listing accounts and filtering content. You can bet that body would be stacked with the kind of liberal academics and legitimize the kind of content screening Google executives currently undertake but deny.

The bottom line is that Google and Amazon business practices should be subject to a thorough review by the Justice Department. To ensure their earnest intent when screening ads, these businesses should be required to bear some financial liability for third-party frauds using their networks.

Congress should require Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter to open their content algorithms to full public security, verify the identity of user accounts and ferret out fake accounts — especially those of foreign actors — whether they publish biblical passages or spread wholesale lies. After all, if someone wants to post material children or folks with limited time to verify content may read, he ought to sign it — with his real name and location.

Beyond these, Congress needs to resist the urge to act impulsively — our democracy is resilient. Americans are generally well educated, and we profit from hearing the worst nuts and thoughtful views contrary to our own.

That’s why we don’t have prior government restraint of free speech, and we should not assign that power on the Internet to private entities. Barring attempts to impede our government or insight violence — let people say what they like and consign censorship to libel laws.

• Peter Morici is an economist and business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.


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