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Greg Boland: Regulation is urgent and necessary in the digital media age

Commentary

Janet Bufton makes the compelling argument for personal choice in her recent essay at The Hub urging governments to show a little faith in people before regulating social media.

However, in situations where the odds are so stacked against the individual, regulation is both normal and required.

Make no mistake, the government’s Bill C-10 is a misguided paternalistic attempt to shape and control media consumption in Canada. Force-feeding Canadians three healthy servings of the Shania Twain catalogue (notwithstanding she migrated to a tax haven years ago) serves no purpose but to enrich an established artist. But behind these measures is a more sinister motivation by the government- to control and shape what the population reads, hears and believes.

But don’t let that argument distract us from the real problems we are facing in the digital media age. Some form of regulation is urgent and necessary.

If the novel is the reefer of the modern media age, social media is the opioid. Addictive, exponentially more powerful, and impossible to contain. Novels, as Janet Bufton points out, were concerning in their day. However, they were largely works by a single author, which propagated relatively slowly. Slowly enough for society to absorb, and adapt and assimilate the information contained in them. Slowly enough for the information to be self-corrected by debate, critique, fact-checking and discussion.

In contrast, digital media is authored by highly concentrated corporations which are staffed by trained behavioural scientists. The content need not be literally authored by the companies in question. Rather, assembling, curating, editing, censoring, and targeting the information has the same effect.

Skilled entities can manufacture and propagate information faster than society can correct it. This leads to turned elections, bankrupt companies and ruined individuals.

Content is amplified through algorithms powered by detailed surveillance of our personal habits. Children growing up in today’s world will be almost completely profiled by the time they are adults. They will have no chance against artificial intelligence designing content to be manipulative and virulent.

In addition, these platforms are effectively monopolies unlike any other in history. Society, for all intents and purposes, consumes all its information through them.

Of course, censoring the media is dangerous and counter productive to society so what are we to do?

We can at least ameliorate the problem in three ways.

Accountability

Currently social media companies are afforded blanket protections from liability for anything posted by third parties. In contrast, “traditional” media outlets are held accountable for their publications.

Newspapers can be found liable for even editing a story unfairly. The same doesn’t hold for digital platforms. They can assemble and disseminate misleading information without any accountability. Moreover, there is an entire industry taking advantage of this loophole. You can anonymously publish literally anything about a person, propagate it instantly, and never be forced to correct it or take it down. Legal recourse is extremely difficult for the victims who must view the content at the top of their Google search results for eternity.

Teams of data scientists create fake information and reverse engineer Google algorithms and social media platforms for maximum effect.

Regulation can solve this problem by either making the platforms accountable, or eliminating their ability to curate information to target an individual. The original protections that social media companies enjoy never envisioned nefarious actors assembling anti-vaccination information and feeding it only to those scientifically determined to be susceptible.

Finally, accountability would also be available to those who were deplatformed.

Competitive regulation

Part of the problem is due to the lack of alternatives for society. Facebook and Google are reality now.

There are well documented allegations of anti-competitive behaviour that need to be corrected to allow alternative information sources to flourish and counterbalance. As argued in one U.S. lawsuit, “through its campaign of anticompetitive conduct, Google has achieved and maintained a monopoly or near-monopoly in [the] marketplace by erecting a toll bridge between publishers and advertisers and charging an unlawfully high price for passage.” Behind the economic barrier you will see a high hurdle for alternative information.

However, more concerning is the effect of the monopoly on the individual. We are given the Hobson’s Choice of either selling our digital organs for access to the monopoly or living in a pre-digital world. We can force our children to be social outcasts or expose them to pernicious material. Even a platform ostensibly designed for children, such as the live gaming feed site Twitch, now has a “Just Chatting” channel featuring partially clothed girls dancing in a hot tub in exchange for viewer donations (which are streamed along the video like a ticker tape).

Empower the individual

Allowing an individual to control their own data would go a long way to controlling the worst of the problem. Starbucks cannot snoop on your internet traffic while using their WiFi. But Google can record and save for eternity: every search request, every web page visited, your location 24 hours a day, the content of your emails, all the content of Google Docs, your android text messages, and all your activity from “Sign in With Google” including purchases at online retailers.

By the time today’s child is an adult, her entire life will be surveilled to the tiniest detail, starting in Google Classroom. If the AI algorithms determine she is science skeptical, she will be sent a diet rich in anti vaccination propaganda and conspiracy theories. Her search queries will be massaged and manipulated as will her news feed and advertisements. Her reality will be shaped to appeal to her vulnerabilities. This is not low quality content from a novel.

Allowing an individual to own and control their information would solve this issue. Opting out of surveillance would force at least some form of neutrality. “Filter bubbles” would be much less prevalent. 

The obvious counter argument is we won’t get all these services if the platforms can’t retain their current profit model. However, a simple examination of the digital rent extracted from users illustrates that searches would still be provided for a fraction of the profitability currently enjoyed. Moreover, the marginal cost of providing services like this are a fraction of what they were at the inception of the model.

Bill C-10 is designed to depower the platforms and give the power to the government so they can control and shape our lives. The right solution is to hold the platforms accountable, remove their monopoly power, and empower the individual.

Michel Kelly-Gagnon: We do have a collective action problem. It’s called the state

Commentary

Recently, Trent University Professor Christopher Dummitt took us all to task for our insufficient dedication to the collective — which, he worries, leaves those who “call for national sacrifice” on behalf of “the collective will” in a bind, bereft of the obedience they deserve.

Dummitt’s alleged “collective action problem” betrays a fundamentally illiberal misunderstanding of the social contract on which Canadian society is based. In short, we do not scamper about in the shadow of a Leviathan that stands apart and above us demanding obedience and “national sacrifice” like some sort of angry God.

Rather, and for centuries now, our social contract is based on voluntary association in freedom and harmony, with mutual respect and mutual tolerance, which also extends to people Dummitt (or I) may find genuinely offensive.

The reason we do not live under this Leviathan is because, in a liberal social order, the collective “we” is made, precisely, of us. When we are joyous, “the collective we” is joyous. When we thrive, it thrives. When we hurt, alas, we feel our pain. The collective is not separate from us, spontaneously generating a separate brain with separate goals. It is us. It derives its form, its strength, its power, and most of all, its legitimacy from the individuals who make it up.

This may seem quite obvious. Alas, the conflation of state and individual, of a separate “we” standing above the real “we,” has long been popular among those who crave power over others. Mussolini distilled it as: “It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity.” The individual still serves a very important function, of course, as the raw material — the cannon fodder, if you will — on which the collective paints the future.

A distinction between voluntary rules organically decided, such as politeness or etiquette, and regulation imposed through the state apparatus, ultimately backed by the use of force, is precisely the point of disagreement from those who think there is too much government control, not too little.

There is a world of difference between asking a favour and demanding it at gunpoint, and blithely conflating both as something “the collective” wants utterly misses the point. Failing to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary cooperation can take one to a very dark place of effectively endorsing totalitarianism in deed where one would never do so in word.

The state can potentially be a helpful servant, when controlled by proper institutions and traditions, but can also be a terrible master. We believe that we must always remain vigilant to the lessons that history has written in florid crimson about the risks of serving a “collective” that stands apart and above us.

The rest of Dummitt’s essay lays out specific harmful consequences of his alleged “collective action problem.” A hedonistic turning away from prudence and self-denial, the declining prestige of and deference paid to experts and parents, the denial of a national culture and “trampled” institutions and traditions that have left people with a “hollowed out” sense of belonging.

A classical liberal might argue that all of these ill effects, and many more, are not due to our insufficient obedience to the state, but rather to our turning too much over to the state. We have shifted from a bottom-up society of individuals interacting voluntarily, to a society governed by an army of remote bureaucrats only tangentially, even perfunctorily, connected to the people they allegedly serve but more often rule.

Instead, classical liberals dream of a society where families can educate their children as they see fit — perhaps emphasizing character over fealty to political fads, for instance. And they dream of a society where they can attend church or social events, seek their livelihood and calling, and yes, maintain their cherished traditions without an army of bureaucrats using cutting-edge studies imported from U.S. universities as a battering ram against the family and against the voluntary associations that sustain the liberal order.

The simple fact that we use words to refer to groups of individuals, whether as a society, a community, a market, or a “collective,” does not erase the individuals themselves. It does not subsume them into some Borg-like energy ball as a plaything for our masters to use for good or ill. And so, rather than a society of masters and servants, we dream of a community of free association, free consent, and mutual tolerance that goes both ways. Yes, certain communities or regions can have discernable characteristics of their own — Iceland tends to generate a lot of poets, while the Dominican Republic raises amazing bachata dancers. But this changes absolutely nothing about the fact that communities are composed of individuals, not some sort of abstract Uber Volk.

And so, while we can agree with Dummitt’s praise for prudence and personal responsibility, friends of liberty would insist, in the strongest possible terms, that it must be voluntary. After all, sacrifice that is voluntary is noble, while sacrifice demanded at gunpoint is the source of humanity’s greatest tragedies.

After we have lost so much to COVID-19, it would be a cruel stroke indeed if the pandemic were used as an excuse to upset the relative harmony and social peace under which we, in the Western world, have lived for centuries, and ardently hope to sustain and even to expand.