Don't just fine Big Tech for abuses; instead, cut them down to size

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Amen, Cory! This article ranks right up there with Lawrence Lessig’s “Code is Law” article and John Perry Barlow’s (quaintly naive in retrospect, yet rightly influential as far as values) “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”

I’d also add Tim O’reilly’s WTF. His ideas about regulating big tech dovetail nicely with what Doctorow mentions in the Locus article.

(O’reilly does come off as an apologist for the personalities and mindsets that got us into this mess, but that does mean his solutions aren’t worth exploring…)

Welp, like military budget cuts and tax increases, for some reason anti-trust actions are only taken seriously when they come from Republicans, so here’s hoping smart people can seize on Trump’s erratic rantings and bring some good out of this bizarre moment in history. We probably won’t get another chance.

Twenty years ago, it was possible for one to host a search engine or social site and argue that one wasn’t a publisher. The site content was user generated, and the host was just that, a host in the new public square. It wasn’t publishing. It was just algorithms.

That didn’t survive more open internet access. It was too easy to bias search results. It was too easy for a site to enable anti-social and sometimes illegal activity. The algorithms had to get more sophisticated. They couldn’t just chuck out the f-word. Getting reliable search results meant picking and choosing the more reliable sites and often cutting deals with them. Social sites required moderation and that required human judgement. Suddenly it wasn’t just algorithms.

The algorithms were still around, but more and more, the content of a search results or social media feed was the result of human judgement. A reporter is still a reporter even if he or she uses a typewriter. A publisher is still a publisher even if he or she uses algorithms to amplify and enforce that judgement.

So now we have Facebook, Google and Twitter and the like, and they are just publishers. They exercise editorial judgement just as Time magazine or one of Hearst’s papers did back in the day. The key is that they are both modern internet platforms as well as old fashioned publishers. It’s time to split the businesses. That’s what would have been done back during the anti-trust era.

Google could still build a database of webpage content and cross references, but that should be a printing press, a facility for building search engines, not the only search engine available. Facebook could still provide a common platform, index and security system for individual social posting, but it should be hosting separately published social networks. Twitter could still serve as a “yellow pages” identifying feeds and sinks, but the editorial control should be decentralized.

The big counterargument is that this would produce fragmentation, but the world is already fragmented. The breakup should require inter-operation, just as was required so that one could call a PacTel phone from a Nynex phone after the Bell system breakup. The last big anti-trust case was the one against Microsoft, and it created the modern world wide web. We need another restructuring to move past the current quagmire.

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