Recently a proposal posted by authors linked with the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy surfaced that proposed the United States consider creating a Digital Platform Agency focused on regulating what digital platforms provide as services, do with data, and interact with customers.
The proposal that was posted is part of an analysis that concludes “Statutes and Regulatory Models Adopted for the Industrial Era are Insufficient for the Realities of the Internet Era”. Such a conclusion seems sound and appropriate for the challenges of the last five years that the U.S. and other countries have faced. However, the conclusion of creating a ‘Digital Platform Agency’ may not fit our global, networked world for three reasons:
- This is a nation-state focused proposal, potentially appropriate for the 20th century when the world was not as networked as it is now, instead of a networked-focused one. Specifically, other nations, such as Estonia where one can become an e-Resident of Estonia without having been born or residing in Estonia or the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) where the EU expects other countries respect the data rights and choices of members of the EU regardless of where they are located in the world, already have pivoted to a networked world. Any solution that U.S. or other countries pursue in this space must be network-centric instead of nation-state specific.
- This is a government-led solution, which while not inherently inappropriately by itself, risks perpetuating challenges where solutions in this space are done *to* people instead of *with* people. By creating a government entity at the federal level, potentially removed from the local circumstances and different community needs of the U.S. public, this agency risks trying to find a one-size fits all for the different parts of the United States (much less the world). As readily apparent by the polarizing issues of the last five years, what communities in California want from digital platforms differ from what Texas want, both of which may differ from what New York wants, etc. In an era in which people were not connected as directly as they are now with their government — when news and information flowed at the essentially one-way speed of radio and newspapers — U.S. federal government agencies had the luxury of time to consider and work solutions that spanned the nation. Now, however, everyone is awash in a deluge of news, media, and information — and social media permits anyone (or any bot) to post news, media, and information of varying degrees of accuracy. This dramatic change in the media landscape calls into question any single-agency solution attempting to find a one-size fits all for the United States that does not involve regional and community differences.
- A Digital Platform Agency would appear to be platform-centered solution to the problems discussed in the aforementioned proposal, focused on regulation of said platforms even though it would appear data is at the root of these challenges. To its credit, the proposal notes “enormous power of data control in the hands of a limited few tech platforms, is further harming innovation” yet by focusing on the platforms, the proposal might be missing the metaphorical forest for the trees. Data sets ultimately are what give the platforms revenue, influence, and power. If the public were more involved in data activities, and had a locus of choice involving their data, then regulation of platforms might not be necessary. It could be the authors of the proposal intend for the agency to focus on data and approach solutions from a data lens, however by calling for a Digital Platform Agency it seems that the focus on Platforms vs. improving better practices, norms, and choice around data is not an adequate fit. The proposal also notes the volumes of data that would require sensemaking to inform any policy action, yet glosses over this saying “artificial intelligence” would resolve this — omitting what would be the appropriate training data sets to apply machine learning or other AI techniques.
New digital crossroads
Ultimately, when considering the reality that “Statutes and Regulatory Models Adopted for the Industrial Era are Insufficient for the Realities of the Internet Era”, any solutions must consider where the metaphoric puck is going vs. where the puck is. Any solutions must also consider how to achieve shared partnerships, shared outcomes, distributed implementations — which includes five key questions:
- Should each nation have its own Digital Platform Agency? Does this make sense in a connected global world?
- Should the networked platforms be allowed to be free to do whatever they want, without some community or national oversight? Does laissez faire make sense either?
- Is anyone empowering the people to have a voice? How do we work to find solutions different, diverse communities while also avoiding a “one-size fits all” approach either for regions of the United States or other parts of the world wanting to work together?
- How do we advance Internet availability, affordability, and digital accessibility recognizing that most of these services, in a free market, are done by transnational, private sector companies? Challenges of Internet availability and affordability for humans persist in the United States and globally — as do challenges of Internet accessibility for those who need the Internet to be accessible for those with different visual or auditory needs. This must be addressed in tandem with any solution involving the public, industry, and governance of digital platforms.
- How can we *do* technology and policies *with* people and communities, vs. to people and communities in a timely fashion? We are now in an era requiring create public involvement in activities that used to be done “behind a curtain” in industry or government, recognizing that public involvement needs to avoid exploitation by different lobbying groups attempts to apply pressure by selective mobilization of a large group. Such involve would need to be done recognizing challenges of both scale and timing as well for public involvement too.
One unclear question about the Digital Policy Agency proposal is how would such an entity interact with private sector entities regarding the challenges of misinformation and disinformation? These challenges are inherently linked to the flows of finance and influence tied to media and politics as highlighted in this Financial Times article. Right now there is too much money to be made and political advantages afforded to misinformation online — and those who strive to point it out and counter misinformation have their voices lost to the more pervasive sentiments of anger, fear, and division. Effectively countering misinformation and disinformation requires taking a systemic look at shared partnerships, shared outcomes, distributed implementations tied to:
- Incentivizing a large community to work together and in so doing, create a set of shared desired outcomes and goals tackling misinformation and disinformation. This includes producing signals to which global markets will respond.
- Ensuring that the diverse interests are incorporated into digital products, services, and most importantly data. Development of such products, services, and data activities also must be distributed and engage the public.
We also need to recognize the challenges associated with an increasing number of automated bots, algorithms, and other digital “things” that can appear to be human, influence humans, and trigger human actions. Approximately 2014 marked the year that people became the minority for Internet-based traffic (41% people vs. 59% bots).
Pragmatic next steps
Perhaps a better first step to address these issues is to start listening and learning tours with different parts of the United States and other countries as to what people want when it comes from digital platforms, digital choice, data rights, and data obligations.
A second, parallel step, would be to require existing digital platforms to clearly post their methods and ways the public can see how the platform’s services, algorithms, and data collection activities operate at a level to be sufficiently informed and exercise human choice. Either the government or a non-profit could assemble all these methods in one place — similar to the AnnualFreeCreditReport.com website that allows the public to “one stop shop” their credit reports from TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax — as an easy to view, easy to use service for the public.
Lastly a third step would be to pilot Data Trusts (also known as Data Commons or Data Cooperatives) with the public focused specifically on digital platform-related activities and positive social outcomes. A specific initiative would establish a Data Trust for Good to provide regional information associated with platform-related services and activities. The information contained within the trust would inform, for example, whether the services were increasing the polarization and distrust in societies or helping to inform societies and promote a net positive good? The pilot project would involve multiple stakeholders seeking to demonstrate a cross-sector, cross-country approach to creating and governing a Data Trust in partnership with the platforms themselves in a way that did not result in surveillance states nor less than agile, top-down solutions.
We must find ways in the United States and other open societies to do data *with* people instead of *to* people. The proposal that the authors linked with the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy proposed should be applauded for its focus, even if the target might need to be adjusted. Hopefully some of the suggestions here might better vector the cursor-on-target to address the geopolitical realities of our global, networked era.
Be Bold, and
Be Brave in our challenging times.
We all can lead. Positive “change agents” — individuals willing to work across sectors and nations to help illuminate better ways through the shared turbulence we are experiencing — are needed now more than ever.