It was the “Wizard of Oz” in digital format as the four titans of Big Tech testified via video before the House Antitrust Subcommittee. Just like in the movie, what the subcommittee saw was controlled by a force hidden from view. The wizard in this case—the reason these four companies are so powerful—is the math that takes our private information and turns it into their corporate asset. It is the 21st century equivalent of Rockefeller’s 20th century monopoly over oil. Unlike industrial assets such as oil, data is reusable. Data is also iterative, as its use in a product creates new data.
“I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about,” President Donald Trump said in a 2020 Oval Office exchange. One of those powers is his authority to shut down radio, television, both wireless and wired phone networks, and the internet. It is not a big step from using the power of the government to threaten free expression to actually doing something to curtail that expression. All it takes is a unilateral “proclamation by the President” of the existence of a “national emergency.”
We have incorporated the internet as a critical part of our personal and professional lives. This is not going to change. The COVID-19 crisis has sped us forward to a paradigm shift in which we rely on the internet to bring economic and social activity to us—rather than us going to them. Yet, tens of millions of Americans do not have access to or cannot afford quality internet service. The United States has an internet access problem, especially in rural areas. The existing program to extend broadband has become a corporate entitlement for incumbent telephone companies.
The connectivity and services built by information capitalists have become too important to be left any longer without public participation in determining the rules they follow. Critical nature of these digital services warrants public interest representation in decisions about their practices. Here are four ideas to incorporate public participation in establishing the rules for the critical services of the information era:
Between Jan 29 (shortly after COVID-19 appeared in the US) and March 26 there was a 105% spike in people active online at home between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm. So why hasn’t the internet ground to a halt? The answer lies in the lessons of Mother’s Day and freeway traffic jams.
If we have to suspend or otherwise modify political campaigning because of coronavirus, social media will become even more important and the fissures it creates even more painful. We should expect the platform companies such as Facebook and Google to step up to this national emergency—but can we?
Back in 2011 Marc Andreesen famously observed, “Software is eating the world.” Fifth-generation wireless technology is part of that evolution. Amidst all the hype about 5G, what makes it different is the simple reality that it uses software to virtualize activities that were once performed by function-specific pieces of hardware. Huawei would be disadvantaged if telecommunications networks threw off their old ways and began to think like Google and other digital-age companies.
The internet was supposed to be the great gift to democracy because everyone would be free to express themselves without the interference of editors or other filters. Instead, the business model of the internet—collecting and manipulating personal information to sell targeting services—has created the tool for attacking the democratic imperative to seek Unum. Our foreign adversaries have proven especially talented in exploiting this capability.
As we enter the third decade of the 21st century—the digital century—it is time for the public interest to reassert itself. Thus far, the digital entrepreneurs have been making the rules about the digital economy. Early in this decade, We the People must reassert a visible hand on the tiller of digital activity. Will public policy intervene to protect personal privacy? Can our leaders act to preserve the idea of a competition-based economy?
The collision of corporate opportunism and Republican anti-government orthodoxy has pushed the United States backwards on the allocation of important spectrum for fifth-generation wireless networks (5G).