Elizabeth Warren Wants Congress To Be Smarter About Tech… While Grossly Overstating Google & Facebook's Market Power

from the let's-start-at-home dept

So, this is good! Elizabeth Warren has announced that she supports bringing back the Office of Technology Assessment.

My anti-corruption plan reinstates and modernizes the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), strengthens congressional support agencies, and transitions congressional staffers to competitive salaries so that Congress can act based on the best expertise and information available.

[….]

Reinstate and modernize the Office of Technology Assessment. The OTA was originally led by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, with votes divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans. The new OTA should be led by a single, independent director to ensure that increased partisanship does not prevent members of Congress from receiving the information they need. The OTA should also have the authority to self-commission reports and be equipped to respond to short-term requests from Members, such as preparing for hearings, writing regulatory letters, and weighing in on agency rulemaking, rather than largely limiting its efforts to lengthy long-term reports. And the OTA should have in-house experts on interdisciplinary issue areas so that it can provide information and analysis on issues like climate change and technology consolidation that do not fit within a single issue area.

That all looks good. Indeed, we’ve been calling for Congress to reinstate and modernize the Office of Technology Assessment for many, many years, so it’s good to see Warren apparently on board with this plan (though I’ll note that she does not appear to be a co-sponsor of an existing bill to help modernize the OTA.

She frames it, somewhat accurately, as a way to get beyond Congress relying on lobbyists and those with dodgy information. And that would be a good thing. But it does seem a bit ironic that the same day she puts out this plan about no longer having tech policy driven by dodgy one-sided information, Alec Stapp gave a detailed explanation of how Warren, herself, was basing a key claim for why Google and Facebook should be broken up on very, very dodgy information.

A big part of Warren’s argument was that Google and Facebook are so dominant on the internet today, that they basically control the flow of information. She claimed that 70% of all traffic went through those two companies.

More than 70% of all Internet traffic goes through sites owned or operated by Google or Facebook.

Stapp decided to dig into that number and found… that while the data is not clear, it’s likely to actually be less than 20%. That’s a pretty damn big difference. Like we’ve seen in other studies where “big” stats are extrapolated from a single report that doesn’t cover what people pretend it covers and are limited by small sample sizes or not representative samples, the same thing seems to have happened here.

And, like those other studies, this one involves a game of telephone as well. The number appears to come from a study from a web analytics company, Parse.ly, from 2015, looking at traffic sent to just 400 news publishers. This is not a random sample. That study showed that Facebook sent 39% of the traffic to the publishers in the sample while Google sent 34%. That was picked up on by a freelance blogger who posted a story on his own website claiming “GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic” which is not at all what the Parse.ly study meant or implied. From there, bastion of fact checking, Newsweek, wrote a piece about who controls the internet and cites the freelancer’s blog. And that brings us back around to Warren, who cites the Newsweek piece.

Voila. A fake statistic laundered through four sources.

Stapp then uses Sandvine’s much more thorough research to suggest that perhaps Google and Facebook drive a bit less than 20% of internet traffic.

As for Google and Facebook? The report found that Google-operated sites receive 12.00 percent of total internet traffic while Facebook-controlled sites receive 7.79 percent. In other words, less than 20 percent of all Internet traffic goes through sites owned or operated by Google or Facebook. While this statistic may be less eye-popping than the one trumpeted by Warren and other antitrust activists, it does have the virtue of being true.

So, yes, it would be good if tech policy was based on more realistic information — and bringing back the OTA would be great. Then, perhaps, Elizabeth Warren wouldn’t also be relying on dodgy stats passed around through bad reporting.

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Companies: facebook, google

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Comments on “Elizabeth Warren Wants Congress To Be Smarter About Tech… While Grossly Overstating Google & Facebook's Market Power”

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Anonymous Coward says:

The problem is that while Warren recognizes the problems with the current situation, she’s still a victim to it: while she doesn’t want to, she still has to depend on lobbyists to do much of her fact checking. Right now her telco and cable lobbyists are bent on breaking up Google and Facebook. And until now, nobody was doing the real legwork needed to show the real stats.

This is one area where I’m all for larger government; bring back congressional aides that actually write laws while we’re at it, and begin rejecting ALL lobbyist madlib bills. They should be written in-house and be based on properly researched data.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: We get it

You post regularly on this site and your comments are rarely flagged unlike some other commenters yet you somehow think Techdirt has unchecked power? I think you might have misunderstood the articles here and there impact on the world. Or is your point that this is a tech company surrogate somehow? Either way, I will continue to visit here and read the articles and will never assume an agenda against people who clearly don’t understand what they are calling for.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: We get it

"You post regularly on this site and your comments are rarely flagged unlike some other commenters…"

Not strictly speaking true anymore. Zof has started getting flagged almost as quickly as Blue/Baghdad Bob.
The difference is, Zof occasionally comes up with a reasonable comment which doesn’t get flagged, where old OOTB can’t pound out three words in a row without coming out as irrational, inflammatory, and incomprehensible.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: We get it

Since you used the work ‘tech’ twice, are you also implying TD (as per your normal MO)?

If, so I’d like to point out that TD was actually encouraging some of her actions. They even included logical arguments for why some of her actions were actually laudable.

I am not exactly an expert on all human behavior ever., but I’m pretty sure that’s not quite what hatred looks like.

Maybe try again?

Anonymous Coward says:

"The new OTA should be led by a single, independent director to ensure that increased partisanship does not prevent members of Congress from receiving the information they need."

This kinda seems like a self-defeating statement. "Independent" is really in the eye of the beholder (and when I say that, I mean that it doesn’t matter what this person says the "other side" will scream "partisanship" at the top of their lungs) and it strikes me that its easier to cash-compromise one person then a group.

Anonymous Coward says:

But she read it on MSM, so it has to be true, right?

So in 10 years when all MSM will be owned by Murdoch, will people start believing what they read on random internet sites? Or will the majority of the people fall for the crafted lies of billionaires?

With the FCC working to gut media consolidation rules, soon you too will have "local" news channels spewing about their "local values" and "community involvement" (and it will be the exact same speech that 100’s of other so called local broadcasters will be spewing to ‘boil the frogs slowly’ so to speak).

Don’t believe the hype, get your tinfoil now

nasch (profile) says:

Re: But she read it on MSM, so it has to be true, right?

With the FCC working to gut media consolidation rules, soon you too will have "local" news channels spewing about their "local values" and "community involvement" (and it will be the exact same speech that 100’s of other so called local broadcasters will be spewing to ‘boil the frogs slowly’ so to speak).

We’re already there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvtNyOzGogc

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"so, 1 in 5 websites visited are facebook or google. That’s fucking huge."

…and the norm, in the US and worldwide.

Go google the "open markets institute report". If anything, a 20% market share is healthier than what you’d expect to see.

I’m conflicted over google’s market dominance but looking back at what they’ve done to break up monopolies – like when the iPhone market dropped from being the one and only real smartphone to just becoming another flavor in a plethora of models launched by 20+ reliable competitors, all thanks to android – I’m still inclined to view Google as a net positive. For now.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"And Barack Obama came out of nowhere; everyone expected Hillary to win in 2008."

All too true. American elections are…odd. Anywhere else what you see in the polls will often at least resemble what you’ll get, but in the US voter participation is so low and 80% of it so predictable the elections will be carried by a very small proportion of voters in states with sufficiently small populations to be disproportionately represented in the electoral college.

In the US, in other words, you end up with a poll coming up with "Everyone expects Hillary to win" and then in response a few trailer parks full of white trash bigots march on the polls and carry the entire election for Trump.

The previous examples we have on times where small hordes of enthusiastic and ignorant yokels carry the election include "at the end of the weimar republic" and "the yeltzin era". You sort of know what comes out on top WILL be an inflammatory demagogue.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"everyone expected Hillary to win in 2008."

"Trump"

Wrong election. While your points are valid, the electoral college had nothing to do with the 2008 election. Clinton lost the primary, which she was generally expected to win but didn’t count on Obama’s genuinely effective grassroots campaign. That wasn’t yokels or ignorance, it was most people not being aware of Obama before the campaign, so assuming Clinton would be next up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Donald trump just has his luck stat almost almost maxed “i actually did a run back in oblivion back in the day oh god that attribute” to offset his stupid so much that even incompetence can’t stop him if he was being doing things out of malice.

Warren does not have that going for her.????

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Liberals, whether you like it or not Joe Biden will be your nominee."

That depends on whether his campaign advisors feel liberals make up enough of the swing voters to carry him in an election.

Biden is a weatherwane, mainly. He is currently electable simply because he is a comfortable choice disinclined to rock very many boats.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re: Re:

His status as a centrist is a double-edged sword, though. Yes, he represents a comfort, a familiarity of the days before Trump and his administration figuratively shat upon America. But an attempted reset to “status quo pre-Trump” won’t go over well with a substantial number of voters. Besides, income inequality and global climate change both make a return to “yesteryear” impossible. And with ideas such as the Green New Deal and wealth taxes both gaining traction, a centrist like Biden — someone who genuinely believes in bipartisanship at a time when Republicans have all but abandoned democracy — offers nothing new or exciting.

And yeah, I can see how “nothing new or exciting” could appeal to centrist voters. That kind of comfort — a kind of “boring” politics — seems like a paradise compared to everything about politics right now. But we can’t go backwards in time, nor can we stand still. We must move forward because the status quo can’t last forever.

The sad thing is, Trump understands that idea…well, in some fashion, at least. He won in 2016 partly because he threatened the status quo. And while the country will be worse off after he leaves office than it was when he entered office, the pre-Trump status quo is gone for good. Sanders and Warren understand the need to move forward. Biden increasingly acts like he doesn’t.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Biden’s only claim to be anything other than a political nonentity is his vice presidency under Obama. And that appointment was mainly meant to present the image that having a young energetic representative of a minority ethnicity as president would be counterbalanced by him being chained to a placid sheep whose most outstanding qualities were placidity and conformity.

"Nothing New Here" sums Biden up in a nutshell.

And no matter how you slice it what will be demanded by voters in a post-Trump era will be "Fix This Mess Already".

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

I still don’t understand why everything in America must be partisan or bipartisan. If the only way you can make something ‘fair’ is by making it bipartisan, that’s not fairness. That’s just an adversarial us vs. them system that’ll never agree or get anything done. They’re not fighting for the public or the best outcome – they’re fighting for whatever their party’s position is.

Try making a truly independent board of advisory instead, that is not beholden to whatever polictical party is in power.

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Bruce C. says:

Controlling the narrative

If content moderation at scale is impossible, the last thing we want to do is concentrate moderating power in a media monoculture or even an oligoculture controlled by a few organizations like Google and Facebook. We already see how that concentration of power plays out in media and ISPs.

"Controlling the narrative" isn’t the only problem with Google and Facebook. Google in particular is a highly integrated vertical monopoly in their main profit spaces. Google runs a slew of advertising-related domains like google-analytics,google syndication and doubleclick. They are by no means a monopoly in advertising, but when you combine this presence with their dominance in search and video on demand, they have unprecedented power as a media company.

I’ve always been against the consolidation of media production with the delivery. For example, in the ISP space, this creates incentives to violate net neutrality as Comcast and AT&T-owned companies get preference for bandwidth consumption on their delivery networks. The same principle applies to Google’s advertising and media delivery.

I’m still working out what an arms-length relationship between Google’s components could look like. Would search be kept separate from user analytics? Would ad analytics be kept separate from ad delivery? The one thing that definitely needs to happen (IMO) is Youtube and google play need to be separate from the advertising and search business. Youtube should be able to display ads from sources other than Google’s delivery channel.

tom (profile) says:

If you change ‘traffic’ to ‘searches’, she isn’t that far off. A quick search shows that Google gets about 63% of all searches. Search results are where you can really influence what folks see. And we know Google and others modify search results based on magic formulas kept locked in a safe next to the Coke formula and the Colonel’s famous recipe.

Porn out of favor? Porn results get down ranked. Anti-vax a problem, down rank the results. Want to help a certain politician or group? Change the results.

Try to force Google and other search engines to revel the magic behind the curtain, good luck.

Don’t see how yet another government agency will help much. Those legi-critters that want to learn about a tech issue will do the research. The others won’t and yet another government issued report won’t change that.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"If you change ‘traffic’ to ‘searches’, she isn’t that far off."

Yes, if you change what she’s talking about then she’s suddenly right. That doesn’t change how wrong the original claim was.

"Search results are where you can really influence what folks see"

If people have a problem with that, they can easily change search engines.

"Porn out of favor? Porn results get down ranked."

Or, in reality, Google offer safesearch so that people can choose whether or n ot to see it. It’s politicians who try to force them to block it for everybody, not Google.

"Want to help a certain politician or group? Change the results."

Which is still as illegal as it is in any other kind of business.

"Try to force Google and other search engines to revel the magic behind the curtain, good luck."

Why should they? Are people trying to force any other company to reveal trade secrets because they’re too popular, or does it magically become necessary when you’re a search engine for some reason?

tom (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Yes, if you change what she’s talking about then she’s suddenly right. That doesn’t change how wrong the original claim was."

If she said what she meant, then sure, her numbers are fubar. But as it is likely she isn’t a tech knowledge powerhouse, confusing total traffic with search result traffic would be an easy mistake to make.


"Want to help a certain politician or group? Change the results."

Which is still as illegal as it is in any other kind of business.’

Why would it be illegal? Private company offering a free service protected by layers of TOS, etc. that say things like use at own risk, not liable for damages, etc. Plus they could probably argue that search results are some type of speech protected by the 1st amendment.


"Try to force Google and other search engines to revel the magic behind the curtain, good luck."

Why should they? Are people trying to force any other company to reveal trade secrets because they’re too popular, or does it magically become necessary when you’re a search engine for some reason?’

Never said they should.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

"If she said what she meant, then sure"

Sorry, if someone’s proposing things like this, I expect them to at least know the basics of the facts they’re using to justify it. Whichever way you spin it, she was wrong.

"Private company offering a free service protected by layers of TOS, etc. that say things like use at own risk, not liable for damages, etc"

Aren’t there specific laws against TV/radio/billboards providing free ads for one candidate over another? I’m no expert on US law, but in most places there’s laws against such things, for very good reason.

"Never said they should"

Then what did you mean with your comment about getting the to reveal their trade secrets?

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Re: Call The ISP's Bluff.

Let’s not waste energy defending Google against accusations, true or false. Let’s start from two axioms: 1) No man is good enough to be another man’s master. 2) Power corrupts. We find means to eliminate concentrations of power, because they are concentrations of power.

Now, as to Google Seach, every browser should have a built-in personal meta-search engine. A meta-search engine takes a query from the user, distributes it to one or more search engines, gets the results back, validates and consolidates them, and displays them to the user.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metasearch_engine

If we build a meta-search engine into the browser, is is as trustworthy and under the user’s control as the browser itself, or, indeed, the operating system.

I don’t suppose Elizabeth Warren has the programming skill to write a meta-serch engine. Donald Trump, of course, has neither the skill nor the intelligence. However, if the ISP’s were really concerned with Google’s dominance, they could easily commission someone to produce and Open-Source-Public-Domain meta-search engine.


I have been out of contact with Techdirt for a bit over a year. At the end of July, 2018, I had a heart attack, followed by a stroke. I spent three of the following five months in the hospital (three admissions), and then there was a period when I was strictly forbidden to pick up a computer box. When hardware broke down, I was not able to repair it in the ordinary way. My sister got me an iPhone to use while I was in the hospital. The e-mail address is:

andrew2david2todd@iCloud.com.

I attempted to use the iPhone to post on Techdirt, but ran into the spam filter. However, I have now gotten my old Mozilla Seamonkey profile working on a new Linux machine (Fedora 30).

I have spent most of the last year doing physical therapy. Just at present, that means walking, on the order of five miles a day, up and down a ten percent grade. My strength is quite good– I apparently lost weight faster than I lost muscle mass– but I still have difficulties with coordination. In particular, these in involve me in difficulties in negotiating right-of-way with automobiles driven by strangers.

I have also produced a program (public domain, of course) to translate WordStar word processor files into HTML, which presently runs to about 2500 lines of C code. The young ladies who look after me were rather insistent on finding me some proper work, at the mental level, as well as the physical level.
Andrew D. Todd
1249 Pineview Dr., Apt 1
Morgantown, WV 26505

    (formerly adtodd@mail.wvnet.edu,
       now a_d_todd@rowboats-sd-ca.com)</code>

http://rowboats-sd-ca.com/

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That One Guy (profile) says:

No no, this was perfect

The very day she proposed bringing back a government group that’s meant to fact-check and provide accurate information she also released a statement showing how badly it was needed, adding even more weight to the first statements.

She couldn’t have done it better if she tried, and all it took was a tiny little ding to her credibility by making a demonstrably flawed statement showing her ignorance/gullibility.

Anonymous Coward says:

More relevent metrics of monopoly market power

Your metrics are just as cherry picked and irrelevant to market power as hers…

How do you measure what traffic ‘goes through’ them, and why does that even matter? Does it count as ‘going through’ when FB loads a ‘like’ button to your computer from an unrelated page? How about Google analytics on a non google page? TD has both those things…like most other sites… you go to these sites, and your computer talks to fb and googs who scrape every bit of data your system is willing to give out….even though you never meant to visit FB or googs- and yet I’m pretty sure those interactions DON’T count as ‘going through’ in this metric; because you’re technically going TO them from another site- they’re benefiting either way though…. If the topic is market power and monopolistic practices, then why shouldn’t these things be considered? -what exactly makes them not represent a form of ‘market power’? What makes them beyond consideration for assessing monopolistic practices? Why should ‘only’ browsing origin and ‘direct influence’ be counted- while completely ignoring near ubiquitous presence at destinations and the data mining that enables?

This sort of narrow megacorp/panopticon friendly perspective shaping feels like Think Tank talking point manipulation… It’s grotesque false framing of the topic.

The default on a modern device is that you have to interact with these companies, even if you consciously choose to deliberately avoid them. -why on earth should that not be considered when attempting to measure market power and monopoly practices?

How much traffic is ‘monitored/touched’ is a much more sensible measure… On that, her figure is WAY LOW, and anyone can figure that out, just by using no-script and looking for google analytics and facebook like buttons.

I’d estimate it’s over 90% when considering both… Don’t take anyone’s word for it= Try it yourself. See how many sites you interact with that DON’T have FB like buttons or google analytics. How much of the internet can you actually use without interacting with these companies? Throw in the rest of the big tech megacorps- see the problem yet?

Monopolies that have been addressed in the past are utterly meek in comparison to the consolidated power and influence of modern tech.

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