Putting Users Back In Control

Francis Fukuyama, Barak Richman, and Ashish Goel recently published a piece in Foreign Affairs, which they ambitiously titled “How to Save Democracy From Technology: Ending Big Tech’s Information Monopoly”.

The gist of their proposal is to take away the role of giant platforms (i.e., Google, Facebook, Twitter) as gatekeepers of content by allowing users to choose from among middleware companies to manage information access. They see this approach as addressing the threat that the concentration of information platforms poses to democracy — and to society generally.

Ads? Hold That Thought…

I believe that this threat is compounded by an ad-supported model that mostly optimizes for engagement — which in turn amplifies the worst of human nature and turns our information ecosystem into a toxic waste dump. But I know that ship has sailed: it would be practically impossible to get most users to pay for something they are accustomed to getting for “free”, at least if “free” is still an option. I’ll get back to ads in a moment.

The Problem: Centralization

There’s some agreement about the problems of information centralization — despite a polarizing left-right debate about whether the bigger problem is misinformation or censorship.

But there’s no consensus on solutions. Frustrated by the failure of self-regulation, people have suggested government regulation or antitrust remedies like breaking the platforms up. People have also raised important issues around user privacy, but I’ll save those for another post.

Like the authors, I feel we shouldn’t be debating where we centralize the control of information access, but rather centralization itself. There is no good place to centralize this power. I don’t trust government regulators, the platforms themselves, or anyone else to act as ministries of truth. That’s not to say that platforms should allow all content on their platforms. But they should only remove content that is outright abusive. It’s not just matter of freedom of expression. Power corrupts, and the absolute power to control information access is not one that we should hand over to any company or government.

The Solution: Decentralization

So we decentralize control of information access! But how? But giving that control back to users! But how do we do that?

For a long time I’ve evangelized human-computer information retrieval (HCIR), a term coined by Gary Marchionini. HCIR promotes providing users with mechanisms that empower them to take control of their information access, and thus to assume responsibility for that control. HCIR is the antithesis of giving that control to a centralized, algorithmic black box.

HCIR is necessary to decentralize control of information access. But it is not sufficient. Offering users complex interfaces won’t help most of them. Most users are neither willing nor able to construct elaborate filters. Instead, they rely on the defaults that the platforms provide. Transparency, guidance, and control are important, but so is simplicity.

That’s where middleware comes in. An ecosystem of middleware companies would allow users to make choices about how their information is filtered and sorted — at a granularity simple enough for mainstream use. Most users would choose filters that they feel align with their personal needs. Given the opportunity, a highly motivated minority would invest the effort to use finer-grained controls. But for the vast majority, middleware strikes me as the most plausible, achievable solution to decentralize information access.

Creating an ecosystem of middleware companies requires regulation. The big information platforms would have to expose APIs and offer terms that make middleware companies financially viable. The authors discuss some of these issues, but there are a lot of details that would have to be worked out.

It’s also important to note that a middleware ecosystem would not eliminate filter bubbles — indeed, it would probably promote them. But users would get to make informed choices about which filter bubbles they enter. At the very least, we would have a diverse ecology of filter bubbles.

But What About Ads?

I expect that some middleware would be provided by non-profits, and some through subscription services that users pay for. But even if it’s much of it is ad-supported — through revenue sharing — middleware would still promote a more diverse, competitive information ecosystem.

The reason I’ve focused so much on attacking the ad-supported model is a belief that information access would be more user-centric if users paid for information with cash rather than attention. I still hold that belief. But I accept that too late in the game to overturn the status quo.

I’ve also hoped that Apple would step in. Since Apple makes its money from hardware and subscription services, it doesn’t depend on ads. Apple could single-handedly shift the balance of power to users — and it has taken steps in that direction with privacy and content-blocking features. But, for the most part, Apple seems content to let Google be Google and Facebook be Facebook. In any case, relying on one company is not a great remedy for centralization.

Closing Thoughts

The middleware solution proposed by the authors isn’t a panacea. At best, it is underspecified. The devil is in the details of what APIs the platforms expose to the middleware, the terms of revenue sharing, and probably a host of other issues that neither the authors nor I have anticipated.

Still, I feel the approach is more promising than any others I’ve seen proposed. So I hope it has legs, and that policy and technology leaders take it seriously.

High-Class Consultant.

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