Potential Policy Reforms

Diagnosing Harms of Asymmetrical Power

As a society, we’ve normalized digital lawlessness in the name of innovation and disruption. We need guardrails that protect the conditions that democracy needs to thrive: a comprehensively educated public, a citizenry that can check the power of market forces and bind predatory behavior.

Dr. Shoshana Zuboff warns of four areas of asymmetric power that technology companies wield over democratic societies in her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism:

  • 🕵️ ASYMMETRIC KNOWLEDGE & INFORMATION: “Surveillance capitalists know everything about us, whereas their operations are designed to be unknowable to us.” 
  • 🦾 ASYMMETRIC CAPACITY & CONTROL: “The essence of the exploitation here is the rendering of our lives as behavioral data for the sake of others’ improved control of us.”  
  • 🏰 ASYMMETRIC SIZE & SCALE: “Hyperscale firms have become emblematic of modern digital capitalism, and as capitalist inventions they present significant social and economic challenges, including their impact on employment and wages, industry concentration, and monopoly.” 
  • 💰 ASYMMETRIC RESOURCES: “The rules of the game have been transformed into something that is both unprecedented and unimaginable outside the digital milieu and the vast resources of wealth and scientific prowess that the new applied utopianists bring to the table.”

We can craft policy to address these asymmetries of power under the following themes. The ideas shared here are meant to be directional and not comprehensive. If you have questions or comments, please let us know. Our small team gets a lot of requests so forgive us if we are not able to respond directly.

Last updated October 28, 2020.

Top Ideas by Theme

👩‍👧‍👦 PROTECTION FOR KIDS

Mechanisms:

  • Big Tobacco-style publicly funded awareness and literacy campaign (e.g. 1990’s :truth campaign)
  • Better ID verification to identify minors for access to services + age-appropriate design
  • Health authorities to help draft guidelines for tech on fostering healthy child development
  • Preventing & combating technology/screen addiction
  • Kid-friendly default settings to limit notifications, limit infinite scrolling, warning labels
  • Restore "Saturday morning cartoon" level protections for kids and advertising

Existing/proposed measures:  

🚫 PRIVACY FOR PEOPLE

Mechanisms:

  • Comprehensive federal privacy legislation including a private right of action, do-not-track by default, do-not-sell by default
  • Ban data brokers
  • Expanded FTC authority + leaning into the “Unfairness” doctrine 

Existing/proposed measures:

🥽 TRANSPARENCY FOR PLATFORMS

Mechanisms:

  • Mandatory transparency libraries & tools, including user-friendly APIs
  • Political ads transparency, including purchaser identity & price transparency
  • Scale-related transparency requirements (e.g., recommendation rates for videos, groups, posts)

Existing/proposed measures:

👩‍⚖️ ACCOUNTABILITY FOR HARMS

Mechanisms:

  • Consider fiduciary obligations + duties of care
  • Establish acceptable risk ratios/safe operating thresholds for social platforms (as we do with bank reserve ratios), tying responsibility with increasing risk. For example: content moderation, safe/unsafe virality ratios and recommendation systems, #trending topics, fake accounts of total accounts, unsafe, unaccountable variations of split-testing, advertising
  • Slow down or disable unsafe platform functions (J&J removing tampered Tylenol from shelf
  • Incentives to audit high-risk algorithms (aka “FDA” for Algorithms, per Coded Bias)

Existing/proposed measures:

🕊 FREEDOM FROM MANIPULATION/EXPLOITATION

Mechanisms:

  • Publicly funded programs for people to know themselves better than tech knows our weaknesses
  • Protect rights to “cognitive liberty
  • Ban behavioral advertising & microtargeting/hyper-personalization (allow contextual ads only)
  • Combating dark patterns & preventing experimentation on users
  • Rules/limits on real-time bidding (RTB)
  • Responsibility to prevent foreign interference & manipulation via states or state-sanctioned actors
  • Responsibility to take down coordinated bot networks, automated accounts

Existing/proposed measures:

🌱 ENABLING COMPETITION

Mechanisms:

  • Prevent data silos & co-mingling across platforms (per German federal court decision)
  • Prevent mergers that inhibit competition/choice (e.g., vertical integrations)
  • Ex ante regulations 

Existing/proposed measures:

💰 TAX FAIRNESS

Mechanisms:

  • Closing existing loopholes (e.g., mandating legal establishment of a business where it operates)
  • Passing legislation to tax digital services
  • Fund/subsidize conventional media/publishers through a tax on big tech
  • Digital advertising taxes

Existing/proposed measures:  

🎖 PROTECT NATIONAL SECURITY

Mechanisms:

  • Mandate registration by foreign agents + penalties for state-sponsored foreign interference
  • Establish effective oversight authority & mechanisms
  • Expand the GIFCT (Global Internet Forum to Counter-Terrorism) to cover additional categories
  • Early warning systems to identify cross-platform coordinated activity
  • Better authentication mechanisms
  • Better cooperation protocols between public/private sector

Existing/proposed measures

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