A couple power points in the internet ecosystem were on display this week.
On Monday, a Gizmoda report charged that Facebook employees were biasing the “trending” bar by avoiding stories popular among conservatives, and even outright blocking conservative news outlets. Facebook responded in a statement that did not completely reject the report, “There are rigorous guidelines in place for the review team to ensure consistency and neutrality. These guidelines do not permit the suppression of political perspectives. Nor do they permit the prioritization of one viewpoint over another or on news outlet over another.” In not providing an outright rejection Facebook makes clear what we likely know about this accusation anyway, that something was awry likely because of people.
According to reports, at Facebook people play a role in choosing the words, people pay a role in what news sites and publications are searched, and even whether some news stories were injected in the list without actually “trending.” People being involved is not shocking. It is a good idea to have people involved so that algorithms do not return silly or unwanted results. No one is really interested in the consistently most searched item on the web, pornography, “trending” every day.
So were conservatives being left out? Were people biasing the results? Did Facebook do something, or did their independent contractors act outside of corporate policy? Honestly who cares? Market competition could arise to Facebook if in fact it were applying any sort of bias as part of actual operations. If this practice was disclosed then what difference does it make? If not, there is a problem. But Facebook has made the alleged bias, however it came to be, a problem given the company’s loud argument that strict net neutrality should be the standard for service providers while not including themselves in the new sticky web of government control. Taken together this is exactly the sort of hypocritical, inauthentic talk and action that voters are rejecting in droves this election.
Also this week, Google announced that they will ban advertisements from payday lenders. In this case that information was announced very publicly, including providing the reason that Google does not like that the pay day lenders charge high interest rates. Who knows who Google won’t like next.
In both cases it’s fair enough – their website, their rules, their power. And that is the important point to take from this week’s news.
These stories demonstrate that there is “power” in various parts of the Internet ecosystem. Market power is not a bad thing and consumers wield it as well. Contrary to the FCC’s bias as expressed in the current privacy rule-making, it is not the service providers alone who might have some ability to effect a user’s experience, and neither are the consumers powerless . This proven reality exposes that the FCC’s proposed privacy rules will do nothing to increase consumer protection, but instead will burden only one part of the ecosystem with intrusive regulation even while backing away from the so called consumer protections in other areas. In short, the FCC is merely acting politically, and recklessly.
The power of various players in the internet ecosystem has been made clear this week, in neither case were service providers involved and yet end results were altered. If the FCC insists in playing in the privacy field despite plenty of other government oversight, then rather than creating fantastical windmills of unproven marketplace power for a quixotic FCC to tilt, it should be seeking to create clear rules that consistently protect consumer data end to end while promoting competition and innovation in the online marketplace.