At the March 2018 congressional hearings with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Democratic Senator Mark Warner of Virginia opened the hearings by stating, “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.” Senator Warner was no doubt responding to the growing fear, shared by many in America and Europe, of the invasive and manipulative practices surrounding the Internet. The time had come for law and order.
2018 was the Year of Reckoning for the Internet. US intelligence agencies have concluded that foreign powers used social media to interfere with US elections. Facebook was central to the story and had the dubious distinction of ending 2018 both the most visited social network in the world and the least trusted of all tech companies. Today, more than three billion people around the world share their private information on Facebook and acquiesce to Facebook’s business of reselling their data. Those who feel threatened, find themselves confounded. Few understand the technologies they use every day, so the public reacts with what has meaning – their right to privacy and an abhorrence of surveillance.
The unfolding forensics – of how Facebook, Google and others are misusing and profiting from the use of our data – have stirred our defenses. We protest loss of privacy and blame what we loosely understand as “data.” Yet the linkage between misuse of data and attacks on the integrity of speech remains obscure. While data and privacy are important, even central, to the larger issue, wielding a blunt instrument in their defense may cause more harm than good. Restricting data and fully protecting privacy may well solve the problems we face, but in doing so we will forfeit much of the value of the Internet.
With our increased vulnerability, we have greater need than ever for public oversight. Around the globe, countries are crafting regulation and censorship to curb the power of American tech giants. America faces the mighty task of safeguarding its citizens’ rights while guaranteeing the continued growth that has provided the world with such extraordinary innovations. We need to begin formulating a holistic policy for protecting our institution of speech in this new digital age...
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