While calling for a healthier internet that is devoid of misinformation and which promotes freedom of expression, former United States of America President Barack Obama called for a regulation for internet companies that would help in furthering innovation but at the same time bring more public oversight in workings of such companies.
Obama in his keynote address at a Stanford University Cyber Policy Center symposium titled “Challenges to Democracy in the Digital Information Realm”, reasoned the need for a regulation while explaining how futile the exercise of content moderation maybe in the long run. He said, “But while content moderation can limit the distribution of clearly dangerous content, it doesn’t go far enough. Users who want to spread disinformation have become experts at pushing right up to the line of what at least published company policies allow. And at those margins, social media platforms tend not to want to do anything, not just because they don’t want to be accused of censorship, because they still have a financial incentive to keep as many users engaged as possible.”
Thus, Obama called for a regulation that should be ‘designed in consultation with tech companies, and experts and communities that are affected, including communities of color and others that sometimes are not well represented here in Silicon Valley’. He said that this would allow these “companies to operate effectively while also slowing the spread of harmful content“.
He also pointed out that legislations such as Digital Services Act was being enforced in the European Union, but admitted that “their approach may not be exactly right for the United States…”
There has been a growing clamour for regulation on Big Tech as problems of disinformation, competition issues, censorship continue being deliberated in various governments across the globe. Like in other countries, India too last year enforced its Information Technology Rules 2021, which brings in additional requirement of compliance for certain social media companies.
What the regulation should look like
Need for more accountability and democratic oversight: Obama said, “On the supply side, tech platforms need to accept that they play a unique role in how we, as a people and people around the world, are consuming information and that their decisions have an impact on every aspect of society. With that power comes accountability, and in democracies like ours, at least, the need for some democratic oversight.
For years, social media companies have resisted that kind of accountability. They’re not unique in that regard. Every private corporation wants to do anything it wants. So, the social media platforms called themselves neutral platforms with no editorial role in what their users saw. They insisted that the content people see on social media has no impact on their beliefs or behavior— even though their business models and their profits are based on telling advertisers the exact opposite – Barack Obama
Public oversight and regulation needed: “Now, some companies have been taking the next step in managing toxic content, experimenting with new product designs that, you know to use just one example, add friction to slow the spread of potentially harmful content. And that kind of innovation is a step in the right direction. It should be applauded, but I also think decisions like this shouldn’t be left solely to private interests. These decisions affect all of us, and just like every other industry that has a big impact in our society, that means these big platforms need to be subject to some level of public oversight and regulation,” the former president added.
Algorithms must be subjected to scrutiny: “Algorithms have evolved to the point where nobody on the outside of these companies can accurately predict what they’ll do, unless they’re really sophisticated and spend a lot of time tracking it. And sometimes, even the people who build them aren’t sure. That’s a problem. We can rightly expect companies to subject the design of their products and services to some level of scrutiny. At minimum, they should have to share that information with researchers and regulators who are charged with keeping the rest of us safe,” Obama added.
Companies need to affirm importance of democratic institutions: “We do expect these companies to affirm the importance of our democratic institutions, not dismiss them, and to work to find the right combination of regulation and industry standards that will make democracy stronger. And because companies recognize the often dangerous relationship between social media, nationalism, domestic hate groups, they do need to engage with vulnerable populations about how to put better safeguards in place to protect minority populations, ethnic populations, religious minorities, wherever they operate,” Obama added.
“And while companies initially always complain that the rules are going to stifle innovation and destroy the industry, the truth is, is that a good regulatory environment usually ends up spurring innovation because it raises the bar on safety and quality. And it turns out that innovation can meet that higher bar. And if consumers trust that new technology is doing right by them and is safe, they’re more likely to use it. And if properly structured, regulation can promote competition and keep incumbents from freezing out new innovators,” — Barack Obama
Why the need for regulation, according to Obama
Confirmation bias: “Today, of course, we occupy entirely different media realities, fed directly into our phones. You don’t even have to look up. And it’s made all of us more prone to what psychologists call confirmation bias, the tendency to select facts and opinions that reinforce our preexisting worldviews and filter out those that don’t. So inside our personal information bubbles, our assumptions, our blind spots, our prejudices aren’t challenged, they’re reinforced. And naturally we’re more likely to react negatively to those consuming different facts and opinions. All of which deepens existing racial and religious and cultural divides,” he said.
Specific decisions by companies have made democracies vulnerable: “It’s fair to say then that some of the current challenges we face are inherent to a fully connected world… But not all problems we’re seeing now are an inevitable byproduct of this new technology. They’re also the result of very specific choices made by the companies that have come to dominate the internet generally and social media platforms in particular. Decisions that, intentionally or not, have made democracies more vulnerable,” he said.
Decline of traditional news sources: ” What social media platforms have done, though, thanks to their increasing market dominance and their emphasis on speed, is accelerate the decline of newspapers and other traditional news sources. There are still brand name newspapers and magazines, not to mention network news broadcasts, NPR other outlets that have adapted to the new digital environment while maintaining the highest standards of journalistic integrity. But as more and more ad revenue flows to the platforms that disseminate the news, rather than that money going to the newsrooms that report it, publishers, reporters, editors, they all feel the pressure to maximize engagement in order to compete. Reporters start worrying about, “I gotta tweet something, cause if I don’t, I may be out of a job.”” he added.
What else can be done other than bringing in regulation?
- Citizens should become better consumer of news: “We have to take it upon ourselves to become better consumers of news, looking at sources, thinking before we share and teaching our kids to become critical thinkers who know how to evaluate sources and separate opinion from fact,” Obama said.
- Promote local journalism: “Part of this project is also going to require us finding creative ways to reinvigorate quality journalism, including local journalism, because one of the challenges we have, part of the reason that you’ve seen increased polarization, is all media has become nationalized and hence, more ideological,” he added.
- Build civic institutions for new generation: “We need to figure out ways to give young people and the rest of us the chance to build up civic muscles. And we have to figure out how to do that, not just in the real world, but also on virtual platforms where young people are spending time,” he added.