Sorry, Senator Franken: Facebook Neutrality Is Impossible
Published in Online Spin, November 10th, 2017.
“As tech giants become a new kind of Internet gatekeeper,” said Senator Al Franken this week, “I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here. No one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t.”
He went on: “Facebook, Google, and Amazon, like ISPs, should be neutral in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platform.”
It sounds reasonable. After all, he is speaking in defense of private citizens’ right to choose. Surely we should be the ones to decide what content we consume, not some faceless Silicon Valley behemoth.
But while it sounds reasonable, Franken’s declaration is, in fact, impossible.
The idea behind neutrality is to have no opinion, to not favor one option over another. A phone line is neutral about the audio that passes through it. Radio waves transmit music and news equally. The Internet itself is neutral about the content it disseminates.
But these companies are not, and have never been, neutral.
Let’s look at Google. Not only is Google not neutral, the entire purpose of the service is to not be neutral.
Google doesn’t exist to find you just any content. It exists to find you the “best” content, meaning the search results most relevant to your query.
And what Google understands -- perhaps more than Franken -- is that “relevant” is a subjective term. What is relevant to me may not be relevant to you. You and I may be looking for different answers to the same question. And so the task before Google is not just to find the best result; it’s to find your best result.
And take Facebook. Despite its principals’ constant protestations that it is just a platform, it has been making editorial decisions from the company’s inception.
Facebook doesn’t exist to show you just any content. It exists to show you the most compelling content, the content that will keep you coming back for more.
If Facebook didn’t take algorithmically editorial steps to favor content you find interesting, its business would fall apart.
Last week, Mark Zuckerberg warned on an earnings call that profits would go down as the company invested more in ensuring bad actors can’t abuse the platform. “Protecting our community,” he said, “is more important than maximizing profits.”
During last week’s hearings, Senator Franken asked Facebook general counsel Colin Stretch whether the social media giant would commit to refusing political ads that were paid for in rubles. Stretch fumbled his answer, with Franken more and more appalled -- after all, other than inappropriately influencing public opinion, what possible reason could anyone have to buy political ads in rubles?
But the point Stretch was trying to make was that currency is only one indicator of whether an ad is from a foreign actor or not -- and an exceptionally easy one to fake. If Facebook really wants to stop foreign governments from interfering in our political process, they will have to look at many more indicators.
In this regard, I’m sure they have Franken’s support -- whatever it takes to fix the problem of foreign actors influencing American public opinion.
But in the end, both Zuckerberg’s comments and Franken’s grilling of Stretch point towards the same outcome: Facebook will be deciding who the bad actors are, what content is reliable, what you should be allowed to see.
It’s the very opposite of neutral.
Facebook and Google are the arbiters of what we see, read and buy. And while we should be concerned, neutrality isn’t the answer.
Maybe we can find a better solution on Google.