While Europe has made great strides toward reining in Google and Facebook’s misconduct and protecting both citizens and their content online, Americans are left asking why, after all that has happened, U.S. policymakers still seem to be twiddling their thumbs.
Despite a recent display of hollow promises to clean up fake news, deter hostile election interference and remove bad actors, it still feels like Facebook and Google are dragging their feet, which makes sense — why should they curtail practices that have made them billions of dollars?
As a past president of the Directors Guild of America (DGA), I am deeply familiar with how Google and Facebook operate on Capitol Hill.
I was involved in fighting digital copyright infringement by helping to put together a coalition of entertainment unions, networks and studios to support legislation that curtails the widespread theft of our work.
You might have heard of the two bills — the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — but probably for all the wrong reasons.
Initially, these proposed acts had major bipartisan support — that is, until Google and Facebook decided to use their formidable lobbying power to kill them.
Actually, this was the first time the “internet lobby” harnessed its enormous clout in Washington — and falsely warned a then-naïve public that these bills would “break the internet” — a bald-faced lie. To frighten the public, they even took Wikipedia offline for 24 hours — which terrified rank and file internet users.
In fact, these bills simply extended copyright protections already in force in the U.S. to perpetrators beyond our borders.
But because these bills would hurt Facebook and Google’s business models, which rely on easily accessible content regardless of legality, they decided to harness their incredible lobbying power for one purpose only: to protect the hundreds of millions of dollars they were making by aiding and abetting these offshore pirates.
This was a clear case of irresponsible manipulation of the public’s naivete in order to protect a revenue stream that contributed to their immense growth.
Piracy was the canary in the coal mine that should have warned us of Google and Facebook’s irresponsibility.
For example, Facebook, YouTube and the like have no obligation to host the bile of InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Or, for that matter, to give anyone a platform for hate speech — and yet they did, profiting from such poison for years, and only recently implementing explicit policy decisions against it after years of looking the other way.
Just consider this: These platforms were reluctant to get rid of a man who accused child victims at Sandy Hook of being “crisis actors.”
The point is that online companies have the legal right and technological means to excise the bottom feeders from the internet’s corpus. And while they’ve been doing better with it in recent months, they’re still not doing nearly enough. And, when government tries to make them change, they shriek yet again that it’s “breaking the internet,” an argument that is getting very long in the tooth.
Make no mistake — for all their bad press, Google and Facebook are making more money now than they ever have. After taking an expected hit over Cambridge Analytica, Facebook’s stock has held steady in the face of relentless controversy. Meanwhile, Google’s share prices haven’t suffered despite a YouTube algorithm that has been accused of serving up hateful and violent videos, and which has a massive misinformation problem of its own.
Deep down, they have no desire to make meaningful changes to the business model that has made them two of the largest and most profitable companies on the planet.
The good news: Polls show that public tolerance is at a breaking point and there is a strong desire that policymakers act. And, for the first time, there seems to be real action underway with the FTC, Congress and state attorneys general all gearing up for investigations of the many sins of Silicon Valley.
More needs to be done to hold internet platforms accountable as well. Facebook and Google themselves have signaled that they agree. But, until Congress demands real action, they will keep collecting their checks, while society foots the bill.