Jonathan Freeland writes that the Cambridge Analytica story reveals that the rich and the powerful have hijacked the internet. It was not supposed to be this way:
In its infancy, the internet was hailed as a harbinger of equality and liberty. The new gospel held that “information wants to be free” – free from censorship and free of charge. A new techno-utopia seemed at hand. Or as Zuckerberg defined his company’s purpose: “Facebook gives people the power to share and make the world more open and connected."
Thanks to social media, the internet had apparently decentralised power. In the old days, information was passed down from the mountain top – by a government, say, or a news organisation – to the crowd below. Now the crowd could speak to each other and to the world. At least one aspect of the techno-utopians’ early hopes seemed to have materialised.
But recent revelations have shown us what has really been going on. Instead of upending the pyramid, social media have firmly entrenched the pyramid:
For what we now understand is that those at the top, the political parties or governments that could afford it, have been engaged in a radical act of recentralising power. They saw the way social media was working, empowering individuals and networks of individuals, and they decided to grab those same weapons for themselves.
What Cambridge Analytica promised its clients was a return to the old form of media distribution, with those at the top sending their message to the crowd below. Except this time, that message would be disguised as if it were the organic word of the crowd itself, spread virally from one person to another, with no traces or fingerprints left by those at the top. As a Cambridge Analytica executive said, unwittingly caught on film: “We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow … it’s unattributable, untrackable.”
What's to be done? Freeland writes that there are several options:
It could be regulation; it could be anti-trust legislation to break up those tech giants that act as virtual monopolies. I like Derakhshan’s idea of obliging Facebook and others to open up a marketplace of algorithms: if you don’t like the current social media preference for popularity (retweets) and novelty (“latest”), you should be free to choose a different algorithm that acts on different values.
Unfettered algorithims -- like an unfettered market -- cause disasters.