The tech industry can’t go it alone. Pretending otherwise only makes the problem worse. As Sheryl Sandberg would say: Lean In.
When books are written about the role played by technology companies in our national dialog, the events about to unfold in Washington this week will likely play a starring role. For the past month, communications, policy, and legal executives at Twitter, Facebook and Google have been prepping for this week’s testimony, where each company will be asked by a wary Congress what role it’s played in the corruption of our political system. If it goes well, there won’t be a second act. If it goes poorly, an entire nation could well turn against its own Internet darlings.
These hearings are extensively choreographed public set pieces — each company has already had private meetings with Congressional staff, and neither side expects fireworks. However, much remains on the line. The testimony will be aired live. There won’t be much of a television audience, but every executive up for Congressional grilling knows that if they screw up, they could become the butt of widely viral memes. After all, they built the platforms which enable our shared culture these days. And that’s pretty much what’s on trial this week — our culture, and how we share it. Then again, each company is sending their general counsel, not their CEO. So the chances of something going terribly wrong are relatively low.
That doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high. As it prepares, Facebook has decided to go in with a good offense — last week it announced new policies related to political advertising (here’s Zuck’s post about it). Ad Age notes the policies actually impact all advertising, which means no more “dark posts” — a claim I’m not sure I buy (it’s more complicated than it seems). Regardless, those dark posts will henceforth be discoverable by researchers and journalists, and that’s an important step forward.
While Facebook insists its announcement has nothing to do with putting a positive spin on the hearings this week, no one with any sense believes them. And those new policies focus only on FEC-regulated speech — and studiously ignore the far thornier problem of organic content. Russian trolls knew enough to bypass purchasing ads directly extolling Donald Trump, and instead focus on divisive issues like race and immigration. Policing that kind of speech means policing all speech, and that’s beyond complicated — it’s existential.
Twitter similarly softened up its DC landing last week, announcing it would also be more transparent, and garnering positive headlines by banning two Russian-based news outlets from advertising on its platform. But Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have both shown a willingness to push the issue well beyond appeasement. Pallone last week warned that our nation’s Internet giants have taken a “quasi-governmental role” in our national dialog. To which I can only ask, where the hell has the government been over the past decade? Our public town square is now owned by private institutions. Did you not notice till just now?
Team Internet will likely lean into the careworn argument that the industry can and should self-regulate, and given who runs Congress and the White House (anti-regulation Republicans), they’ll likely find a receptive ear once all the shouting is over. But I’d argue that the smart move here is in fact to demand new regulation. These are perhaps the most difficult and nuanced policy questions facing us as a nation, and really, shouldn’t “the smartest kids in the room” be leading that kind of conversation? (They’re also the “richest kids in the room,” which lends an overarching sense of responsibility to the conversation).
Congress has already drafted legislation, but it’s just that, a draft, and it most likely won’t cover the most complicated portions of the debate (nor will it likely pass, even with McCain as a co-sponsor). The public has already spoken: it doesn’t trust either the tech companies or the legislators to do this alone. Instead of ducking and covering, tech should demand this conversation, and take the hardest, but most important road ahead: That of leadership.
Special thanks to Octavio Raygoza for help on this piece.