Anamitra Deb
Senior Director, Beneficial Technology
&
Gus Rossi
Principal, Beneficial Technology

You're Grounded. And We're Taking Away the Keys to the Car

February 6, 2020

This month, Facebook and Google’s YouTube turn 16 and 15 years old respectively. In this time, they have come to own and operate essential infrastructure, provide services on which other companies depend, and engage in multi-sided markets. Most would agree that is a lot of responsibility for a teenager.

Until now, tech giants have run amok and avoided meaningful “parental” oversight. Self-regulation has enabled them to act out in powerful ways that have harmed our political discourse and social institutions, stifled entrepreneurship and innovation, and abused the freedoms and rights of many ordinary people who use their platforms—and who they call “friends”. Such concentrated, unaccountable power must be checked and balanced.

Teenagers need ground rules that ensure safety, trust, and good behavior. In this case, competition, privacy protections, content standards, and empowered users—all things big tech has rebelled against—are necessary ground rules for a safe, just, and inclusive society and a strong, fair economy.

The root of all tech issues: unchecked power

Any parent will tell you that teenagers of driving age need to earn that responsibility. No one would hand over the keys to the car to someone who had broken their “passengers’“ trust as much as the dominant technology platforms.

Today, we are sharing our perspective on how to better steward technology, curb the tech giants’ power, and shape the rules of the road for the future. 

Widespread, online disinformation and algorithmic discrimination against vulnerable groups as well as questionable tactics to kill competition and pervasive surveillance practice are proof that dominant tech companies have stopped working in the interest of most people. And they invest considerable sums of money in lobbying decision makers, running public relations campaigns, and co-opting or conditioning independent voices to avoid addressing these issues. We’ve recently invested in nine organizations to serve as counterweights to their influence, advance critical policy solutions, and help restore the public’s control over and trust in the tech industry.

We believe that all people—including those who use tech or are directly affected by these companies’ business practices—should have a voice in how these platforms operate. And we are confronting that power imbalance head on by enabling independent experts to raise awareness of the political, social, and economic harms caused by the dominant tech platforms and challenge their dominance over data, markets, and decision-making. With our latest support, several public interest groups will have added capacity to generate new research, work on checks and balances, act as watchdogs, organize campaigns, and include historically marginalized voices in the development of solutions. The organizations include:

Sustainable, systems change over silver bullets

The platforms’ current market dominance affects the effectiveness of our democratic processes, who benefits from the economy, and whose liberties are protected. And as we have seen, when they are allowed to set the rules, they pay more attention to growth, profit, and political influence than how they are advantaging some and excluding others; enabling people with power to misuse people’s data; and empowering bad actors to hurt people emotionally, physically, and financially on their platforms.

It’s time to rein in the power of these platforms and hold technology companies accountable for their role in fueling inequality and enabling harmful practices. In “The Root of Big Tech Issues: Unchecked Power” we’ve laid out several, specific remedies; starting with ways we can gain a better understanding of the harms created via these platforms. We also need a diverse toolbox of solutions—not just antitrust action and pro-competition regulation, but also privacy and data-use safeguards, better content standards, and clearly defined and sustained lines of public oversight.

We see a lot of opportunity in the next two years to challenge industry-driven narratives; educate policy makers on the complex dilemmas of emerging technologies as well as the negative impacts on their constituencies; and enforce existing laws. In this election year, we will expand and strengthen these ideas and support organizations in testing them out in key jurisdictions, while also finding nascent solutions that are more experimental and creative to round out and diversify key strengths in this space.

Empowering people, not platforms

We believe there is a critical window of opportunity today for a broader movement to create the will, environment, and conditions for a more responsible technology industry that respects the people who use technology.

In our analysis, we’ve highlighted many of the organization that are challenging the leading technology companies’ narrative and bringing forth evidence to compel action. In support of platform accountability, Omidyar Network has personally invested in Open Markets Institute, Public Knowledge, and Yale’s Thurman Arnold Project, led by Dr. Fiona Scott Morton. We’ve also contributed to the Anti-Monopoly Fund, led by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, to serve as a clearinghouse for academic research, policy advocacy, storytelling, and grassroots action. And we’re helping to change whose voices and experiences are heard by US policymakers on these issues through our latest nine investees named above.

We encourage others to join this movement and help:

  • set clear rules and boundaries for powerful platforms
  • create an environment where innovation and new ideas flourish
  • ensure a meaningful voice for people in how technology and society interact.

Learn more about the strong and diverse counterweights Omidyar Network proposes to challenge technology platforms’ power in our newly released point of view.

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