By the end of 2018, whatever faith we may have once placed in the giant technology corporations that we use daily was growing threadbare. YouTube made a show of removing Alex Jones’ breathless conspiracy theories for repeatedly violating their guidelines, but a subsequent report from Data and Society showed the platform continues to promote extremist content through its sensation-seeking algorithm. Amazon has rolled out a powerful facial recognition system, but it is flawed and biased, according to the ACLU, which found it falsely matched members of Congress with criminal mug shots. Facebook was apologetic about personal information scooped up by Cambridge Analytica and claimed it was a one-off violation of policies. Then we found out, thanks to a December New York Times investigation, that Facebook has given over a hundred companies routine access to troves of users’ personal data.
Added to that, two thorough reports produced for a congressional committee last month described how Russian state actors used numerous American social platforms to deepen polarization, sow confusion and influence the presidential election. This isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Political persuasion is treated no differently than persuading customers to purchase a pair of shoes. Abroad, these companies have accelerated the spread of rumors and hate, leading to lynchings in Mexico and Sri Lanka and even genocide in Myanmar. They move fast and break things, juggernauts without ethical or legal brakes.
So far, the solutions they offer have fallen short. As the Times recently reported, Facebook employees in Menlo Park meet weekly to hash out rules to be followed by low-wage workers across the globe who struggle to apply them with only seconds to make judgments. Google tweaks its search engine when hate sites rise to the top of search results, but only after complaints surface. YouTube continues to send viewers down a rabbit hole of sensationalism because engagement is profitable for ad placement — a situation extremists are happy to exploit. The Turkish writer and sociologist Zeynep Tufekci has said, “we’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.” A Pew Research survey has shown that Americans worry about the way these companies sweep up and use their personal information, but feel helpless.
We have a working model of a distributed sharing platform that has a much longer track record than Facebook or Google. It’s called the public library. Over the past century, libraries have developed a robust set of core values. Libraries defend intellectual freedom and fight censorship. They are committed to protecting privacy. They strive to honor the diverse voices in their communities. They value access to knowledge for all. They are committed to the public good. In short, they serve as proof of concept that sharing need not entail revealing every detail of your personal life to a multitude of data miners. The existence of public libraries demonstrates that we have the will to support sharing knowledge as a public good, not simply as a profit-making enterprise.
What does this mean for Facebook, Google and the rest? They have an influence and reach far beyond any library, but we’re not powerless. Some of us are shareholders; we can agitate for taking the public trust seriously. Some of us work for these companies. Increasingly, employees are flexing their muscle and demanding change. All of us are the user base, the members whose numbers matter to the bottom line; we can threaten to withdraw our attention if we feel our trust is abused. We are also voters who can encourage our state and national legislators to hold companies accountable and regulate sensibly. The time is right for legislation such as the Data Care Act of 2018 introduced by U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and others last month. After all, we demand safety features for cars and air travel. We require political ads on television to be clearly labeled. Why not make the information networks that have so much influence safer for democracy?
Another world is possible. In fact there’s a working model of it just down the street at your local public library.
Barbara Fister, of St. Peter, Minn., is an academic librarian.