Can Internet Regulation Stop Bots and Trolls?

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In the issue dated October 1, 2018, New Yorker writer Jane Mayer discusses a new book by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, in which Jamieson “offers a forensic analysis of the available evidence and concludes that Russia very likely delivered Trump’s victory.” That such an outcome is even thinkable virtually demands that Americans take a look at how we get our information and what it price we pay for it.

In its second report on Digital Deceit, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, New America, presents a policy framework to address the threat to democracy created by digital communications and how that threat “demands a new social contract for the internet rooted in transparency, privacy and competition.”

The report begins by pointing out the obvious: consumers pay for the services available on the internet with data about themselves. This data is then aggregated on some principle — demographic or behavioral — and sold in the form of targeted advertising. It’s a good business — just ask Google or Facebook.

This data-driven business model has begun to fray now that it is becoming clear that the model has, perhaps, performed too well, especially in the area of “political data privacy.” The New America report notes:

The marketplace for targeting online political communications is not new. But the emergence of highly effective malicious actors and the apparent scale of their success in manipulating the American polity has triggered a crisis in confidence in the digital economy because of the threat posed to the integrity of our political system.

Transparency, the report says, is the “starting point for reform … to rein in the abuses of political advertising.” Political advertising on the internet is not regulated by government, and although some companies are making efforts at self-regulation, only government has the power to “shape a robust political ad transparency policy for digital media.” After all, it is not in a company’s best financial interest to take steps to reduce its profits.

Existing federal rules do nothing to regulate what information digital media companies are allowed to gather or what they can do with that information. To address this privacy concern, New America recommends “increasing user privacy and individual control over data in ways that blunt the precision of audience segmentation and targeted communications.”

The third leg of a new social contract for the internet age is competition. From the report:

While there is some logic in applying regulations to monopolies as “one-stop shops” to address immediate public harms, the long terms solution must involve a more robust competitive landscape to put market forces to work diversifying the digital media landscape. More to the point, competition policy affords opportunities to restore user control over data through portability and to provide individuals with the leverage they need to shape digital media products that do not devolve to the logic of data-driven attention capture.

The full report from New America is available at the website.

Jane Mayer’s article in The New Yorker is at the magazine’s website.

The title of Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s book is “Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President–What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know.”