The recent move by the US Department of Justice to sue Google over allegations that its search and advertising capabilities violate federal antitrust laws is unsurprisingly making headlines. The world should applaud the much-needed review of a dominant platform that the ministry claims has monopolized the search sector and exploited society through this commercial dominance. The reality, however, is that the United States – and its global partners – must take a comprehensive approach to internet regulation in order to meet the biggest and most persistent challenges the internet has faced in the past decade. While action against Google is a significant development, the regulatory intent of lawmakers cannot end with Google or simply enforcing antitrust rules against the company.
The coronavirus pandemic has only increased the importance of regulation on the internet. COVID-19 has accelerated the global transition to a virtual economy: work and school have largely shifted online; Telehealth services have increased; Online shopping has grown significantly; Grocery delivery apps, fitness, and social meetups have increased. Each of these trends were already underway, of course, but global lockdowns due to the pandemic have accelerated these changes dramatically.
Will our way of life change forever? What will the new normal look like? The answers may be unknown, but in the short term it is clear that people all over the world are exchanging more information online and sharing more personal information with different companies, health insurers, employers, schools and other networks. And all of this happens via mostly unregulated online platforms. As digital communications become a fundamental service that society depends on, consumers and citizens should wonder who has access to our information and how it is used. Communication over the Internet is becoming more and more like a utility-like service. We turn to the same platforms every day to access social media, video conferencing, and the internet. As a result, the companies behind these services have displaced competition and become economically stronger. Meanwhile, the dominant digital platforms are soaking up data, using it to generate proprietary insights, and steering the media landscape towards a system designed to maximize their bottom line. In other words, they are building one-sided power over what we see and consume in the digital media ecosystem.
Consumers of online media or data should ask whether the information they are reading is correct and secure. People have the right to know that their data is not going to be used to make use of it – economically, intellectually, or politically.
Whether President Donald Trump is re-elected or Democratic candidate Joe Biden wins, the next administration must respond to the urgency the coronavirus pandemic has brought in the context of the digital media ecosystem. Congress and administration must work together to pass meaningful laws regulating the Internet.
But how exactly? And how can a regulator curb companies like Facebook whose business models are necessarily exploitative in nature?
A smart and sustainable regulatory reform agenda must first address directly the prevailing business model in the internet sector – one that focuses on the uninhibited collection of vast amounts of personal and proprietary network information, the use of highly opaque but sophisticated information algorithms for curating content and ad targeting; and the industry's propensity to focus on aggressive platform growth at the expense of all other considerations, including adherence to democratic norms.
The next US government must jointly respond to these commercial excesses. The first step is to pass a comprehensive data protection law at the federal level. The California Consumer Protection Act of 2018 was a significant step forward in advancing consumer protection at the state level. Without a coherent federal approach, however, companies will be forced to navigate an inconsistent patchwork of state laws. In any case, the United States must take an even stronger approach than California at the federal level, and put in place a framework similar to the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for protecting people's privacy online. The GDPR effectively gives individual consumers control over their personal data and simplifies the regulatory environment for international business across the European Union. Privacy is about giving consumers control of their data – their digital currency – as well as the ability to opt out of the commercial regime of the internet that turns consumers into products that are sold to digital advertisers. The technology sector accounts for more than 10 percent of the US economy. The United States should lead the way in innovation in technology regulation – but it has fallen far behind. And while some may suggest we don't need a US privacy law because the industry is already GDPR compliant around the world, the reality is that we need something – a law on the books – to give American consumers rights in the face of a speeding situation changing industry.
Second, US regulators must promote transparency on the Internet in every way. The leading tech companies collect user information, but don't tell them what they are collecting in real time. They process user data to derive behavioral insights, but do not reveal what those insights are or how they were developed. And they target the same users with organic and paid content depending on who they think they are – creating vicious prejudices in the media ecosystem that has led us to profound social damage like disinformation operations overseas. According to the Pew Research Center, 79 percent of American adults are concerned about how data is collected about them by companies, 81 percent believe the risks of data collection outweigh the benefits, and 81 percent believe that they are in control of the data , about which data is collected, companies lack it. It is not technologically impossible for companies to offer more transparency about how the algorithms behind these decision-making systems work. It's just the fact that the industry has no incentive to do such a practice. Legislators and regulators can and should force them to do so.
Third, we need to rethink the way in which we compete in the US market to challenge the platforms' strong incentive to grow at the expense of the public interest. According to a recent US antitrust report, lawmakers need to think about how to increase competition in the marketplace and strengthen antitrust law and enforcement. For too long, Americans have seen the courts set a precedent focusing on consumer harm – a metric not available in an industry where business leaders falsely claim that their services are "free" to their users can be effectively calculated and regulated. Regulators need to consider how to limit the monopoly power of these platforms. As one of us has suggested in the past, these platforms are showing increasing signs of natural monopoly and as such should be regulated.
This is a crucial moment in technology policy. Indeed, there is enormous political will to curb the economic power that an exploitative industry has accumulated over decades. The Trump administration's lawsuit against Google may be a step in the right direction, but accordingly, the next Congress offers an opportunity to advance a meaningful and comprehensive reform agenda to regulate big tech once and for all. The next administration – whether led by Biden or Trump – should seize this opportunity and work across the aisle to pass meaningful laws to protect online consumers.