The past week or so has seen a surge in commentary on the role of corporations in society, a theme familiar to readers of this site. While it might be convenient to peg the trend to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s newly minted Accountable Capitalism Act (more on that in a second), I think it’s more likely that – finally – our collective will is turning to our most logical and obvious instrument of social change, namely, the instrument of business.
We humans like to organize ourselves into social units. They range from the informal (pickup basketball games) to the elaborately structured (Senate hearings). Our ability to harness collective will is unsurpassed in the animal kingdom, it’s one of our key evolutionary adaptations, driving the success of our species across the globe.
I’ve been covering Google’s rather tortured relationship with China for more than 15 years now. The company’s off again, on again approach to the Internet’s largest “untapped” market has proven vexing, but as today’s Intercept scoop informs us, it looks like Google has yielded to its own growth imperative, and will once again stand up its search services for the Chinese market. To wit:
GOOGLE IS PLANNING to launch a censored version of its search engine in China that will blacklist websites and search terms about human rights, democracy, religion, and peaceful protest, The Intercept can reveal.
‘[I]t is not enough for democracy to be radical; it must be revolutionary’ argues Wayne Price
One of Winston Churchill’s most notable lines was:
No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were fewer than ten democracies in the world. By the turn of the 21st, that number had reached 80, with half of humanity governed by some form of democracy. Yet, we’ve grown astutely aware of the flaws in the system in the past two years, with some calling for an end to democracy.
Following my Senate testimony last month, several Senators reached out with additional questions and clarification requests. As I understand it this is pretty standard. Given I published my testimony here earlier, I asked if I could do the same for my written followup. The committee agreed, the questions and my answers are below.
The tech behemoths’ role in nation-states is evolving
The biggest US tech companies now have powers which challenge the primacy of governments in many domains. In many cases they also have capabilities not available to nation states. We touched on these issues, and the notion of “corporate foreign policy” in one of the previous issues of my weekly newsletter Exponential View.
Now in the Pennsylvania Law Review, Kristen Eichensehr looks at the issue of Digital Switzerlands in greater depth, 66 pages of it to be precise. We’ve summarized parts of it here. One key distinction between large corporations and nation states is that they lack territory, control of state-violence, and have very different governance mechanisms to nation-states. But that is as true for many supranational bodies as well.
A theme of my writing over the past ten or so years has been the role of data in society. I tend to frame that role anthropologically: How have we adapted to this new element in our society? What tools and social structures have we created in response to its emergence as a currency in our world? How have power structures shifted as a result?
Increasingly, I’ve been worrying a hypothesis: Like a city built over generations without central planning or consideration for much more than fundamental capitalistic values, we’ve architected an ecosystem around data that is not only dysfunctional, it’s possibly antithetical to the core values of democratic society. Houston, it seems, we really do have a problem.
If Twitter’s countermeasures fail in the run up to the mid-term election, they should prepare a nuclear option.
Russian intelligence distorted the democratic process of the 2016 Presidential Election by manipulating social media, and perhaps more. A tech backlash is in full swing, where the power of unintended and intended (ads) consequences wielded by platforms will be curbed. The management of these platforms has failed to self-regulate to date.
Twitter’s countermeasures have reduced the number of bot fakesters, and it does feel like there is less toxicity in the personalized feed. But in this information war there will always be new attack vectors on the attention and divisive outrage of the electorate. The same hacks are already happening to ready disinformation dumps.
Last Sunday was Father’s Day, and I never thought I’d say this, but I was glad to get a tie, because my wife knew I would need it (it’s been literally over a decade since I’ve worn one). Today I was called to testify before a Senate Commerce committee hearing on Facebook and the role of data in society. Apparently they’ve been reading my work and, well, that landed me in DC. My full written testimony, replete with dozens of links to my previous work and coming in at 2500 or so words, is published on Searchblog. Below is what I read into verbal testimony before the Senators got into a couple hours of questioning, which, by they way, I found to be well informed and enlightened.
God, “innovation.” First banalized by undereducated entrepreneurs in the oughts, then ground to pablum by corporate grammarians over the past decade, “innovation” — at least when applied to business — deserves an unheralded etymological death.
It’s somehow fitting that today, May 25th, marks my return to writing here on Searchblog, after a long absence driven in large part by the launch of NewCo Shift as a publication on Medium more than two years ago. Since then Medium has deprecated its support for publications (and abandoned its original advertising model), and I’ve soured even more than usual on “platforms,” whether they be well intentioned (as I believe Medium is) or indifferent toward and fundamentally bad for publishing (as I believe Facebook to be).