Opinion

Letter from the editor: Regulating Big Tech requires nuance, not petulance

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey speaks at an event in Toronto in April 2019. Bloomberg/Cole Burston
article-aa

I write this column every couple of weeks because it reminds me of who we serve, and hopefully brings us a little bit closer to you. I always read your replies—even if I sometimes don’t email you back a response.

Sometimes these letters write themselves, with thorough arguments that reflect my experience, reporting and conversations with interesting people. Other times, as the CEO of a small business, the weeks are filled with so many competing priorities that when it comes to putting down my thoughts, I’m left with disparate nuggets. 

This was one of those weeks. 

So with that preamble (and excuse) out of the way, here are a few things that have been on my mind this week.

Trump’s Twitter temper tantrum: U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday that could reshape how social media companies are held accountable for what takes place on their platforms. The measure came on the heels of Twitter adding fact-checking links to two of Trump’s tweets about mail-in ballots. On early Friday morning, Twitter went a step further, all but blocking a tweet by Trump that it said glorified violence against those protesting the killing of George Floyd. 

The move opens a new front in the ongoing battle between policymakers and tech companies. But regulating Big Tech requires nuance, not petulance. Here in Canada, there is increasing fervor for action against foreign tech giants, whether through taxation, competition, or privacy policy.  

I propose that the Canadian government establish a working group tied to Heritage, Finance, Global Affairs and Innovation, Science and Economic Development. It could shape a government-wide policy response that factors freedom of speech, trade and even geopolitics in any government approach to Big Tech. The group would address some of the core issues at the heart of platform governance: whether to tax the big digital players, how to maintain competitiveness and protect Canadian innovation, how to protect user information, the impact of digital advertising behemoths on print publishers, the role of public media in acting as a bulwark against misinformation and how tech companies are re-shaping the geopolitical landscape.

While it may be tempting to deliver reactive policies that address personal grievances, regulating the companies requires a cross-departmental approach that considers the financial incentives built into the digital advertising model, the competitive marketplace that Big Tech dominates and the data and privacy issues built into the attention economy. 

Let’s hope Canadian officials aren’t getting any ideas from the White House. 

Algorithms are people: In response to Twitter’s decision, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg went on Fox News and criticized Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s decision. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” he said. “Private companies probably shouldn’t be—especially these platform companies—shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

Zuckerberg’s statement is a bit absurd, given Facebook’s algorithms by their very nature decide what should and shouldn’t be visible to users on their feeds. It was a reprisal of his long-held view that platform companies are not media companies, and therefore shouldn’t be held to the same standards and practices as those of us who edit for a living. 

It’s also predicated on the idea that algorithms are separate from human beings, and that we aren’t responsible for what they produce—a laissez-faire framing that could have dire consequences as artificial intelligence and quantum computing technologies advance. 

In fairness to Zuckerberg, he’s not alone. Just this week, Business Insider broke the news that Microsoft was shedding dozens of contractors as it moves away from human editors to an AI-driven system of picking stories for one of the world’s biggest news portals, MSN.com.

Silicon Valley’s political divide: The different approaches taken by Zuckerberg and Dorsey also expose the widely known—but not widely publicized—political divisions in Silicon Valley between techno-solutionist protectionists like Facebook board member and Trump supporter Peter Thiel and Salesforce CEO and World Economic Forum devotee Marc Benioff. 

Gone are the days of free love in the pursuit of a big exit from Sand Hill Road; this generation’s tech leaders are making their voices heard. This was on display during the 2018 general election, when Benioff sparred with the aforementioned Dorsey over a proposal to fight homelesness in San Francisco. 

Expect these political rifts to widen in the run-up to the presidential election this November. 

Facts matter: A few hours before Trump signed his executive order Thursday, Martin Baron, the editor of the Washington Post, delivered the commencement address at Harvard University. In his speech—which is worth watching—Baron described the escalating importance of facts and truth, not just to democracy, but even in keeping us alive. 

“Only a few months ago, I would have settled for emphasizing that our democracy depends on facts and truth. And it surely does. But now, as we can plainly see, it is more elemental than that,” Baron told the graduating class, while isolating at his home in Washington, D.C. “Facts and truth are matters of life and death. Misinformation, disinformation, delusions and deceit can kill.”

Masking the problem: This time last weekend, Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park was making national headlines for being crowded when we were all supposed to be staying home. If all of those young adults had been wearing masks, would we have been as outraged? Atul Gawande wrote a piece for The New Yorker earlier this month highlighting a Nature study showing that, if worn properly, surgical masks can block 99 per cent of the respiratory droplets expelled by people with coronaviruses or influenza viruses. “The material of a double-layered cotton mask—the kind many people have been making at home—can block droplet emissions, as well,” he wrote. The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 also doesn’t last long on cloth: viral counts fall 99 per cent in three hours. In short, if you go outside this weekend, please wear a mask. 

Working from home: Announcing the end of the office has become the cool thing to do these days, with Shopify, Twitter and Facebook leading the way. We are following suit, and have asked our team to stay away from the The Logic’s Toronto office until at least January. But here’s my confession: I miss the office. I miss being around my creative and brilliant colleagues. And, I miss the separation of my home life and work life. 

I do think there’s a distinction needed between creative and technical professionals, the latter being more transferable to a highly productive remote-work environment. But I thought Microsoft’s Satya Nadella had it right when he told The New York Times last week that switching from the office to working from home is “replacing one dogma with another dogma”—one that will draw down on the social capital we built up when we were all together.