“I think you do enormous good … but your power sometimes scares me,” said Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana in October to the general counsels of Facebook, Google, and Twitter at the first major congressional hearing on Big Tech in years. The topic was Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election, but the testimony illuminated the platforms’ domination of large parts of American life, without any interest in managing that control. Malign actors could so easily penetrate platform defenses because there weren’t any. Facebook has five million advertisers at any one time; it couldn’t possibly vet them if it tried.
Furthermore, tech firms have no incentive to interfere with the source of so much revenue. That’s why ProPublica could list discriminatory rental housing ads excluding races and ethnicities in 2016, and then again in 2017, after Facebook claimed to fix the problem. That’s why Google is purging videos and disabling comments on YouTube’s predatory, sexualized user content aimed at children, but not always removing the predators’ accounts. Allowing the narrowest possible targeting and the maximum possible targets has built the most lucrative ad mechanism in history, and it generates big bucks, even if the bill is paid in rubles.
The hearings were important more for their explanatory power than for the technicalities of election integrity. “The end of the story is not Russia hacking the election, but that gross harm exists,” says Marshall Steinbaum, research director at the Roosevelt Institute. It filled out the picture on these platforms, whose operations we understand as much as the proverbial blind man feeling around an elephant. “We need to make sure that the public fully understands the scope of the problem we face, and how it could be dramatically worse, given the speed at which these companies are growing,” says Lina Khan, legal policy director at the Open Markets Institute.
We don’t know how our data is handled. We don’t know how algorithms nudge us into certain apps or products. We don’t even have a confirmed figure of Amazon Prime memberships (recent estimates range between 52 million and 85 million households). There are nearly 270 million fake and duplicate accounts on Facebook, a number they quietly updated only in November.
Platforms like Google have invested heavily in the academic research establishment. The search giant has funded around 100 public research papers since 2009, with up to $400,000 in seed money for each, according to data from The Wall Street Journal. Most of the research papers failed to disclose Google’s funding; Google even gives notes on the studies before they get published. This academic payola tilts the debate about how these businesses work, and in whose interest.