This is a thought-provoking article. I need to think about this, and comment later. But here’s the problem they’re trying to solve:
Big Tech now dominates the dissemination of information and the coordination of political mobilization, posing unique threats to democracy, @FukuyamaFrancis, @BarakRichman, and @ashishgoel write. What should policymakers do to curb these firms’ power?https://t.co/d9dMIEA3RT— Foreign Affairs (@ForeignAffairs) November 25, 2020
Digital platforms’ concentrated economic and political power is like a loaded weapon sitting on a table. At the moment, the people sitting on the other side of the table likely won’t pick up the gun and pull the trigger. The question for U.S. democracy, however, is whether it is safe to leave the gun there, where another person with worse intentions could come along and pick it up. No liberal democracy is content to entrust concentrated political power to individuals based on assumptions about their good intentions. That is why the United States places checks and balances on that power.
If regulation, breakup, data portability, and privacy law all fall short, then what remains to be done about concentrated platform power? One of the most promising solutions has received little attention: middleware. Middleware is generally defined as software that rides on top of an existing platform and can modify the presentation of underlying data. Added to current technology platforms’ services, middleware could allow users to choose how information is curated and filtered for them. Users would select middleware services that would determine the importance and veracity of political content, and the platforms would use those determinations to curate what those users saw. In other words, a competitive layer of new companies with transparent algorithms would step in and take over the editorial gateway functions currently filled by dominant technology platforms whose algorithms are opaque.
More on how it would work:
Middleware products can be offered through a variety of approaches. One particularly effective approach would be for users to access the middleware via a technology platform such as Apple or Twitter. Consider news articles on users’ news feeds or popular tweets by political figures. In the background of Apple or Twitter, a middleware service could add labels such as “misleading,” “unverified,” and “lacks context.” When users logged on to Apple and Twitter, they would see these labels on the news articles and tweets. A more interventionist middleware could also influence the rankings for certain feeds, such as Amazon product lists, Facebook advertisements, Google search results, or YouTube video recommendations. For example, consumers could select middleware providers that adjusted their Amazon search results to prioritize products made domestically, eco-friendly products, or lower-priced goods. Middleware could even prevent a user from viewing certain content or block specific information sources or manufacturers altogether.
Thoughts off the top of my head
Middleware seems like an inadequate solution, although it does address one problem–that big tech companies have so much control over the curation of information. This would take some of that power out of their hands and put it into a market situation, where competitors could provide different types of middleware products and individual consumers could choose the ones they wanted. This de-weaponize the platforms or at least minimize this potentiality.
My sense is that big problems, impacting our democracy, would still exist, though. More later.