Ahead of this week’s interrogation of the social media giants by Senators, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has penned his thoughts including the introduction of transparency laws to squeeze out explanations on how algorithms work.
While we do not agree with a lot of the dribble Pai spews onto the industry, here he does have a point. The operations of the social media giants have been shrouded in mystery for years, with most recent scandals demonstrating a need for more transparency. So many aspects of our lives are entwined in social media nowadays, the public interest case for transparency exceeds the protections afforded to private sector organizations.
“Consumers interact with these digital platforms on a daily basis,” Pai writes. “We get our news from them. We interact with our family and friends on them. But how do these companies make decisions about what we see and what we don’t? And who makes those decisions? We still don’t know.”
News, online expression, protection of freedom of speech and the sensitivities of users are all contentious issues. This is a very complicated topic as drawing a line on what can or cannot be said brings out a huge number of opinions, many of which are biased by experience or current situation. There is no right answer and there isn’t a wrong one either, but the argument is a moot point if no-ones understands how these decisions are being made. Transparency is key to informing the debate, and people do need to know how these algorithms work.
Of course, there is a sense of irony around Pai weighing in here. Firstly, let us not forget the FCC is responsible for regulating the networks which facilitate the digital economy. Cables in the ground, cell towers on hills and satellites in the sky. The agency is not responsible for regulating content or the social media giants. While Pai may consider himself an important man in the telco world, his influence on social media regulation and governance should be no greater than yours or mine.
Secondly, let’s not forget Pai has been working to remove the same transparency rules which are imposed onto the telcos. During the Obama administration, former FCC-Chairman Tom Wheeler imposed rules stating the telcos would have to seek explicit permission, an opt-in, to use personal information obtained from various records, including web browser history, to generate additional revenues. These rules were immensely unpopular with the telcos and one of Pai’s first jobs was to set out reversing the culture of transparency Wheeler had enforced.
Inconsistencies from the Trump regime and the puppets it commands is hardly news, but Pai is trying his best to push his luck here. Another brilliant example is criticising Twitter for violating net neutralities rules when banning content. Firstly, net neutrality rules are written for the companies who transport data, not those who own content platforms. And secondly, these are rules he supposedly disagrees with on a fundamental level and is trying to erase from the rulebook. Pai either doesn’t understand net neutrality or believes the people reading the post don’t.
A final irony to Pai’s intervention here is the actual intervention itself. As mentioned before, Pai is not responsible for regulating the social media giants, but seems to be seeking more of an active role in contributing to the debate. Since taking office, Pai has seemingly been on a mission to reduce the workload of the FCC, perhaps worrying his staff are overworked, creating a more light-touch environment and even suggesting some powers should be moved over to other agencies. Seeking additional responsibilities does not align with our experience of Pai.
Perhaps this is a strategic move from the White House as it is finding which puppets are most responsive. Pai has been instrumental in creating the light-touch regulatory environment sought by the Trump administration as well as battling the evil China treat. Perhaps orders from above are pushing the FCC towards new shores as Trump ramps up his battle with the social media giants.
Ultimately, we agree with Pai, just disagree with the way he has approached the argument. The social media giants do need to be held more accountable and offer greater levels of transparency. Social media is critical in numerous aspects of our lives from education on current events to authentication, these organizations can no longer hide behind the curtain, manically pulling levers, sending data to unknown corners of the web. More transparency is needed on how the business actually works.
The hearings with the House Energy and Commerce Committee start today, and we hope the Senators have done a bit more research for this interrogation. The last thing we need are rule-makers being outed as the technology-ignorant elitists they probably are. Let’s hope we don’t get another ‘Senator, we sell ads’ moment.