Why Are People Celebrating Al Franken's Incomprehensible Speech About The Internet?

from the it-makes-no-sense dept

Note: I wrote this post last night, before the news broke this morning that Franken is yet another powerful man sexually abusing women. That story is horrific and gross and Franken deserves all the shit (and more) that he's getting for it. This story is not about that, but about a speech he gave last week. I'm guessing that (quite reasonably) more people will be focused on those revelations rather than this dumb speech, but I wanted to at least explain why the speech was dumb too.

Last week, Karl wrote a post about Senator Al Franken's keynote speech at the Open Markets Institute -- a group that has been getting plenty of attention of late for arguing that big tech companies are too big and too powerful. Karl's post focused on Franken's weird argument that "net neutrality" should apply to edge companies like Google and Facebook, which made no sense. But what's more troubling to me is that Franken's whole speech was bordering on incomprehensible. This is disappointing, as I tend to think that Franken is pretty thoughtful and careful as a Senator (even when I disagree with him at a policy level -- such as with his support of PIPA).

The speech seems to basically be Franken throwing off random quips that attack just how big internet companies are, which is certainly red meat for the Open Markets crowd. And I don't deny that there are some very serious questions to be asked about the size and power of companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like... but Franken's speech was not that. But because it has a few quotable lines and is attacking everyone's favorite punching bags, it's being hailed by sites like Wired as "the speech big tech has been dreading." If this is the speech that big tech has been dreading, they've been worrying about nothing.

Much of Franken's speech can be summarized as listing off the general complaints lots of people have about Google, Facebook and Twitter. Specifically: these sites are big, they may have too much power, they track too much info and bad people abuse the sites. All of those things may actually be true -- but such arguments should be presented with actual evidence and some idea of what to do about it. Franken, on the other hand, gives a bunch of points that don't hold together and repeatedly contradict his own statements within this very speech. He careens back and forth wildly from "these sites should stop bad stuff" to "how dare these sites think they can decide what's good and what's bad online." Over and over again -- with an interlude at one point that's all about "how dare these sites not prop up my friends in Hollywood." People who hate Google and Facebook have been cheering on this speech, but it doesn't do them any favors either, because the thread of the speech is non-existent. There's no coherent message that comes out of it, other than that Franken has no clue what he's talking about here, but wanted to please the Google and Facebook haters, and so he tossed out every cliche he could think of, even when they were self-contradictory.

Let's go through the speech bit by bit:

As lawmakers grapple with the revelations regarding Russia’s manipulation of social media during the 2016 election, many are shocked to learn the outsized role that the major tech companies play in so many aspects of our lives. Not only do they guide what we see, read, and buy on a regular basis, but their dominance – specifically in the market of information – now requires that we consider their role in the integrity of our democracy.

This is actually a good start. The events of the last year should have people wondering about how these platforms can impact democracy. I think lots of people are asking that question. But it quickly goes off the rails...

Last week’s hearings demonstrated that these companies may not be up to the challenge that they’ve created for themselves. In some instances, it seems that they’ve failed to take commonsense precautions to prevent the spread of propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech.

What "challenge" have they "created for themselves"? The platforms he's talking about have focused on increasing communications among anyone -- and sometimes those communications are not good. And that's a concern, but is it the responsibility of the tools to determine which speech is good and bad? Even more to the point -- do we want internet platforms to be the ones saying that "propaganda, misinformation and hate speech" (with no clear definitions) are not allowed? That would create all sorts of problems worse than the supposed "challenge" Franken is so worried about. Also, making the platforms somehow responsible is a ridiculous idea, as it only gives them much more power -- and, as he notes in his opening paragraph, he's already upset about how dominant they are.

So even just in the first two paragraphs he's contradicted himself. They have too much power, and he's shocked that they don't use that power to silence perfectly legal speech that he doesn't like. And this is leaving aside the idea that if Facebook, Google, Twitter and such suddenly announced that they weren't allowing "propaganda or misinformation" online people would be up in arms as they took down lots of perfectly legal speech that people supported. Almost all political content is propaganda or misinformation of some kind or another. Hell, one could argue that this speech is full of misinformation. And now Franken is saying that these platforms should be forced to "prevent" such speech?

Senator John Kennedy, a Republican from Louisiana, asked Google, Facebook, and Twitter some really tough questions in a judiciary committee hearing, and he captured my takeaway from recent events perfectly: the power of these companies “sometimes scares me”.

So, now we're back to them being too powerful. Paragraph 1: too powerful. Paragraph 2: why don't they use their power to censor more? Paragraph 3: they have so much power it scares me.

The platforms that big tech has designed may now be so large and unruly that we can’t trust the companies to get it right when they do start paying attention. If you have five million advertisers a month using your highly sophisticated, nearly instantaneous ad platform, can you ever really know who all of them are? Can you ever catch all the signals that would seem obvious to a pair of human eyes – for example, political ads that are paid for in rubles?

And, boom, we're right back to these platforms not actually exercising their power. And then getting confused about what's really a key point in all of this. It's true that you can't really know who all the users of these platforms are. And that's part of the reason why these sites are so useful. The fact that anyone can go and buy ads on Facebook is actually a wonderful thing for most businesses that use the platform. It has taken away the traditional gatekeepers, who made advertising difficult, expensive and poorly targeted. Now, there are other issues with the targeting of ads, related to privacy questions or just the general "creepy" factor, but complaining that these platforms can't "know" all the details of all their customers kind of misses the point about why these platforms are so useful.

Before I move on, I want to be very clear about something. In my view, the size of these companies is not – in isolation – the problem. But I am extremely concerned about these platforms’ use of Americans’ personal information to further solidify their market power and consequently extract unfair conditions from the content creators and innovators that rely on their platforms to reach consumers.

So... now it's not the size that's the problem, but the power to use that size to be unfair to "content creators and innovators that rely on their platforms to reach consumers." Okay, but you just complained in the previous paragraph that it's a problem that these sites don't "know" all of their customers, suggesting that they should be much more restrictive. But this paragraph suggests you think they're too restrictive and people who use the platform to reach "consumers" should have more ability to do so. WHICH ONE IS IT, AL?

And as has become alarmingly clear in recent months, these companies have unprecedented power to guide Americans’ access to information and potentially shape the future of journalism. It should go without saying that such power comes with great responsibility.

Yes, this is a concern, but you keep going back and forth on why it's a concern. Is it a concern because the companies aren't blocking propaganda and misinformation? Or is it a concern because they're not letting enough information through to end users?

As the founder and top Democrat on the judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology, and the law, I’ve watched as the tech community’s collection and treatment of users’ personal information has evolved over the years. In the past, I’ve raised concerns about Facebook’s use of facial recognition technology, and I’ve pressed Google on its unauthorized collection of K-12 student data.

While I appreciate that these companies have taken steps to improve transparency of their use of Americans’ personal information in recent years, unfortunately, accumulating massive troves of information isn’t just a side project for them; it’s their whole business model. We are not their customers; we are their product.

I've already explained why I find the expression "if you're not paying, you're the product" to be a silly and meaingless statement, but there is certainly a legitimate concern about how much information these companies have and what they do with that information. Franken won't get an argument from me on that point, but given how his speech keeps swinging back and forth, it's hard to see where he's going with this.

Facebook and Google’s vast collection of our personal information has fueled their advertising business, which has now become their main source of revenue and given the companies a strong duopoly in the digital advertising market. Facebook announced that it made $9.3bn in the second quarter this year, with 98% of that coming from its advertising business.

Google made $26bn, with 87% coming from advertising. Once these companies establish dominance over our data, they can more easily erect barriers to entry for potential competitors – in the digital advertising market as well as the other markets in which they operate. Ultimately, they have even less incentive to respect our privacy going forward or more closely monitor their advertising tools for use by bad actors.

Again, this may be a legitimate concern. The two companies are behemoths in the online advertising space, and it certainly could be bad if they then leveraged that position to stamp out competition. That's something that I think is absolutely worth paying attention to and using antitrust law to prevent. But... Franken tries to tie this to a failure to "closely monitor their advertising tools for use by bad actors."

And that takes us back to the basic confusion about what Franken is concerned about here. Is it that they have too much power to silence people... or that they have no incentive anymore to silence people? Because those two things seem to be in direct conflict, and Franken seems to be arguing them both simultaneously (even going back and forth on them as if they're the same thing).

About the only way this makes sense is if Franken is really arguing that Google and Facebook should be legally required to show people "more good stuff" and legally required to show us "less bad stuff" but without giving any actual definition of "good stuff" or "bad stuff." And perhaps this is why some people are cheering on the speech. Who doesn't want more good stuff and less bad stuff? But by assuming that (1) it's easy to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff and (2) that everyone will agree to what's good and what's bad and (3) giving that much power over truth to a few private companies won't backfire... is bizarre.

You may not like that Facebook uses your likes, shares, and comments to decide for you which advertisements or friends’ posts are most relevant for your News Feed. And you may not like that Google can now deliver ads to you by combining its DoubleClick data on your web-browsing behavior with your personally identifiable information that it gathered through your Gmail account. But are you ever going to delete the profile and connections you’ve spent years establishing on the world’s dominant social network? Or get rid of your Gmail account?

Again, this is a valid concern, but seems contradictory to his alternating point about wanting these platforms to do more to stop "bad" stuff from happening on their platforms. To do that, wouldn't they need access to information like this?

The information that these companies collect can also be a very dangerous weapon if it falls into the wrong hands. ProPublica recently revealed that up until two months ago, Facebook allowed advertisers using the company’s self-service ad-buying platform to target more than 2,000 people who expressed interest in the topic of quote “Jew hater” and other antisemitic themes.

While these categories were apparently automatically generated by an algorithm based on users’ self-reported interests, it is Facebook’s responsibility to monitor such tools and ensure that it isn’t facilitating or – worse – making a profit on such hateful activity. Facebook ultimately removed the categories from the ad platform, but only after reporters notified the company about it.

And... we're right back to demanding that Facebook spy on people even more. What the fuck, Senator Franken? In one breath you say that Facebook is tracking too much information and in the next you complain that it's not tracking enough information to stop anti-Semites. Which is it?

Algorithms seem to be a convenient excuse. Facebook has cited its algorithms for creating hateful advertising categories and failing to catch a hostile foreign power using its platform to spread lies and sow discord. Google has previously said that its algorithms necessarily include websites dedicated to illegal activity in search results, such as pirate sites, even as in other instances it maintains that its results do reflect Google’s judgment.

Okay. So here we have Senator Franken complaining that Facebook and Google are not discriminating and blocking certain content, so stay tuned, because this will seem mighty silly in a few more paragraphs.

And at the same time, Facebook, Google, and Amazon have used their algorithms to extract unfair terms and fees from those dependent on its platform, promote their own products and services above those of competing companies, and even manipulate the emotional state of its users.

I'm curious what unfair fees he's talking about. He doesn't elaborate. But again, the message here is so muddied. He's concerned these sites have too much power, at the same time he's upset that they don't get more aggressive in abusing that power.

In 2014, Facebook published its findings from an experiment in which it altered its News Feed algorithm for a segment of its users – unbeknownst to them, of course – and filtered posts based on their emotional content. As orchestrated by the altered algorithm, some users saw predominantly positive content while others saw mostly negative content. Unsurprisingly, the big takeaway was that Facebook has the power to influence our psychological state.

That’s scary.

Yes. It is. So why, just paragraphs earlier, were you demanding that Facebook actively modify their feeds to show less bad stuff and promote more good stuff? Weren't you demanding the exact thing you now claim is "scary"?

So on the one hand, the troves of user data and automated algorithms make these companies appear almost clumsy. But on the other, they’re a sophisticated strategic tool used to maintain and strengthen their own power. As Americans have lost meaningful control over their personal information, the content creators that rely on platforms to reach consumers have lost all of their leverage.

He keeps throwing in these weird little digs about "content creators" which seems like a dog whistle on copyright issues. But this makes no sense. Most content creators pre-internet had no leverage at all. Most content creators were drummed out of the business if they had no deal with a giant gatekeeper -- record label, movie studio, book publisher -- who had all the leverage and demanded not just your copyright, but 85% of your earnings. These new platforms have opened up the ability for all those people who couldn't even get past the gatekeepers to start making money online, and other services like Kickstarter and Patreon have opened up ways for them to have tremendous leverage by going direct to their fans. What's that have to do with the fact that Facebook is big? I haven't the slightest idea. But, I will say that tons of people who make money online these days from their creations have these platforms to thank for being able to build up such a large audience to support them.

I understand what it means to dedicate your life to writing, creating, and praying that someone somewhere will eventually get to appreciate your work.

In more ways than not, the internet, along with all the companies we’re discussing here today, has made it possible for every American – no matter their corner of the country – to express themselves to their friends – and to people all over the world.

Okay, so now we're saying that these platforms have been amazingly beneficial right after saying they've wiped out all leverage. Hmm.

But as the wealth of information available on the internet has grown, big tech has taken it upon itself to sort through all the viewpoints, news, and entertainment, and decide for us what we should read, watch, buy, or even how we should engage in civil society.

What the hell, Al? You keep going back and forth. First you want them to delete bad stuff online, and now you're back again complaining when they do exactly what you were asking a few paragraphs ago?

As far as I can tell, Al Franken's big complaint here is "why do Facebook and Google sometimes show stuff that I, Al Franken, dislike, and why doesn't it do more to promote the content that I, Al Franken, really like?" That's the only way in which this speech makes any sense at all.

And they’re doing it all under the shadow of complicated algorithms that make little sense to either the content creators whose livelihood depends on them or the users whose everyday decisions they’re controlling.

Hmm. Did the decision-making that Universal Music used to fuck over musicians decades ago make any sense to musicians back then? No, it didn't. And, back then, musicians were fucked if a giant label like that did them wrong. Today, artists can strike out on their own, build fan bases on their own and use a variety of services to make it work. Not everyone will succeed, but any content creator relying on Facebook or Google to be a success these days made a bad decision. A US Senator should not be telling companies that they have to make certain content creators succeed. That's scary.

It doesn’t require an antitrust lawyer to understand that these companies’ dominance in the market of information gives them tremendous power to dictate terms with journalists, publishers, and authors and to control the information available to consumers.

Once again, I don't know what point Franken is making. The companies are bad because they have the power to censor content and the companies are bad because they don't censor content. Which is it?

As it stands now, Google and Facebook control 75% of all internet news traffic referrals, meaning that three out of four times an internet user accesses a news story online, they get there via Google or Facebook. The numbers are even more alarming by topic. According to Parsely analytics, almost 60% of “US Presidential Politics” traffic comes through Facebook, nearly 25% comes through Google, and less than 16% comes through other sources.

With this unprecedented power, platforms have both the incentive and the ability to redirect into their own pockets the advertising dollars that once fueled the newspaper business. And news publishers fighting for eyes are forced to navigate Facebook and Google’s optimization policies, which have previously prevented news organizations from using paywalls or offering subscription services and have driven journalists to write stories that they know will be promoted in Google Search, on News Feeds, and in the “trending” section of Facebook.

This is a concern. But it's because news publications fucked up. They got sucked into this. Some of us (like, literally, us), focused on creating good content and building up a solid audience who would return directly. Some of us (like, literally, us) chose not to play the games of SEO and social media tricks, because that's a waste of time and get you sucked into this vortex. Yes, some news orgs went the other direction and that was dumb of them. But is Franken really arguing that we should prop up news organizations that made a dumb decision and handed more power over to Google and Facebook?

While I appreciate the companies’ recent efforts to ensure that publishers and journalists are more adequately compensated, the end result may be the same: journalism for the masses and the never-ending search for the next viral story.

Wait. So... now the complaint is one about human nature?

In his book World Without Mind, Franklin Foer describes newsrooms’ reliance on Chartbeat – a site that allows them to track in real time the readership of each and every article, which of course fuels advertising, and ultimately puts pressure on journalists and editors to create the most click-worthy story.

To quote Foer: “The site’s needle made us feel as if our magazine were a car, showing us either sputtering up the hill of a poor traffic day or cruising to a satisfying number.” During the 2016 election, then presidential candidate Donald Trump, with his truly unpredictable outbursts on Twitter, was the perfect focus for newsrooms seeking as much traffic as possible.

Again, it was always dumb for news orgs to focus on clicks rather than building up a loyal audience. We use Chartbeat here, but I'm the only one who looks at it and none of our writers get to see it because we've never wanted our writers to focus on clicks or traffic. We want them writing great stories so that all of you keep coming back. A flash in the pan from some other site sending traffic is nice, and maybe a few people stick around, but that's not a strategy. That's chasing the wind. Lots of news publishers made mistakes, but why should that be Franken's concern? And why would he blame Google and Facebook for it?

Tragically, the need to find the next viral story may soon hit the book-selling business as well.

In 2007, Amazon revolutionized reading when it unveiled the Kindle. With the introduction of the e-reader, Americans could instantly access almost any book they desired – from the comfort of their home and at an all-time low price.

It is widely reported that Amazon strategically set their prices below cost in an effort to capture the market. Indeed, for years, American consumers benefited from the company’s ultra-low prices and slowly shifted their business away from brick-and-mortar stores and other online retailers. Currently, Amazon controls over 83% of e-book sales, nearly 90% of online print sales, and almost 99% of digital audio sales.

Amazon has since used its unprecedented monopsony power to force publishers to agree to contract terms and conditions that the publishers say have stalled price competition among book distributors, ultimately resulting in higher e-book prices for consumers.

How do you set ebook prices "below cost"? The "cost" of another copy is zero. Amazon's original ebook pricing was a $9.99 flat rate for every book. It was only after Apple colluded with other publishers to change that pricing and push for higher prices that Amazon was pressured (not the other way...) into variable pricing. This is a bizarre rewriting of history by Franken.

Amazon has also used its power to demand additional payments for critical items like warehousing and inclusion in its personalized user recommendations – an algorithm that I’m sure most users assume is based purely on their personal preferences. And now that Amazon is a publisher itself, it has every incentive and ability to promote its own books over those of others in user recommendations, price promotions, and bestseller lists.

Reasonable point. But is it happening? If it is, that's worth exploring. Just saying it has the incentive to do so is meaningless if there's no evidence of this abuse of power.

As a recent article by Lina Khan so neatly lays out, in many ways, Amazon’s evolution in the book business is the perfect illustration of how an entity can use anticompetitive tactics to not only capture a market, but also maintain it, and ultimately use its platform to enter and dominate entirely new markets. Like diapers.

And as we’ve seen in the book business, once Amazon captures a market, it then has the ability to eliminate competition on consumer prices. So while Amazon’s prices on any given item may be low for now, it’s only a matter of time before the company starts squeezing consumers. Like we’ve seen with diapers.

If Amazon provides a better diaper buying experience than others, what's the problem, exactly? Yes, Amazon is big, but if it really starts abusing that position, doesn't that seem like an opening for others to jump in? I mean, diapers are an odd example, since Amazon did, in fact, buy Diapers.com because it was an upstart that did a damn good job of competing with Amazon. And then after Amazon bought the site, Diapers.com's founder went off and founded a new site that also competes with Amazon.

Unsurprisingly, as a result of Amazon’s tactics in the book business, publishers say they’re selling fewer books than they otherwise would.

Who exactly determines what "they otherwise would" here? Because that phrase is doing a lot of work for a claim made with no basis at all.

And they fear the day that they’ll be unable to invest in new authors or less popular genres, instead focusing all of their diminishing resources on the “blockbusters” of the book business. These are the some of the long-term effects that I find truly disturbing.

This is the same bullshit line that the music and movie industries have given for decades. And it's always turned out to be wrong. It's based on what the giant gatekeepers (record labels, movie studios, book publishers) are saying, ignoring that the internet has enabled tons of musicians, filmmakers and authors to create, distribute, promote and monetize. The idea that there will suddenly be less investment in books is ludicrous if you look at how many books are being published today vs. two decades ago. And much of that is because of Amazon and the ability for people to avoid the publishers altogether.

Now, I have spent much of my time in the Senate advocating for strong net neutrality rules to preserve the longstanding principle that all lawful content on the internet should receive equal treatment from internet service providers regardless of who owns the content or how much money he or she has in the bank.

And in 2015, millions of American consumers and businesses celebrated the FCC’s landmark vote to preserve a free and open internet under Title II of the Communications Act. Ensuring those strong rules are maintained – and enforced – remains my top priority.

As tech giants become a new kind of internet gatekeeper, I believe the same basic principles of net neutrality should apply here: no one company should have the power to pick and choose which content reaches consumers and which doesn’t. And Facebook, Google, and Amazon – like ISPs – should be “neutral” in their treatment of the flow of lawful information and commerce on their platforms.

And yet in this screed you keep insisting that Google and Facebook need to block bad content. And now you're back to saying they should be neutral. Do you even realize how directly in conflict your own speech is with your own speech?

Following years of hard work and dedication, we found in the Open Internet Order a strong and time-tested framework to protect net neutrality. While we fight to preserve the Order, we must now begin a thorough examination of big tech’s practices in order to secure the free flow of information on the internet.

The free flow of information on the internet is incredibly important. I've been fighting it for probably longer than Franken knew the internet existed. But that's not what Franken is saying here. In this speech, he's arguing for the exact opposite of what he thinks he's arguing for.

Everyone is rightfully focused on Russian manipulation of social media, but as lawmakers, it is incumbent upon us to ask the broader questions. How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives? How is it using our personal information to strengthen its reach and its bottom line? Are these companies engaging in anticompetitive behavior that restricts the free flow of information and commerce? Are they failing to take simple precautions to respect our privacy and protect our democracy? And finally, what role should these companies play in our lives, and how do we ensure transparency and accountability from them going forward?

This I agree with. These are all good questions. But, you can't dig into these issues if you don't actually have a clue about what's going on, and the rest of Franken's speech suggests he has no clue. And that's unfortunate.

We need to talk about data in digital advertising and how it influences competition and encourages a disregard for Americans’ privacy. We need to better understand how past deals – Google’s purchases of DoubleClick and Waze or Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram, for example – have impacted consumers’ privacy and big tech’s ability to establish barriers to entry for emerging rivals.

And finally, we desperately need to conduct vigorous oversight – in the form of investigations and hearings – to fully understand current practices and the potential for harm. We must work together to make this happen.

Sure. We should talk about these things. I have my concerns about those acquisitions as well, but again, Franken's speech is all over the place. There's no consistent message at all. It's just "how dare the platforms not take more responsibility in blocking content... but also how dare they block any content?" Also, "how dare they become so useful that people use them... and how dare they not prop up news organizations that didn't innovate?" It's "how dare these platforms become successful for content creators... but also how dare they not magically make all content creators successful?"

I'm sure that the haters of the internet have lapped this talk up and are all excited about it. I've seen tweets from people cheering it on, because it slams Google and Facebook and Amazon. And there are reasons to be worried about all of those companies. But this speech makes no sense at all. As a thought experiment: if you worked at one of those companies and sincerely wanted to change things to make Senator Franken happy after hearing this speech, what would you do? You should not block or favor any content, but you should not allow misinformation or propaganda. How do you do both of those things? Perhaps Senator Franken can explain.

Filed Under: al franken, antitrust, big companies, content regulation, hipster anti-trust, monopoly, net neutrality, privacy, regulation
Companies: amazon, facebook, google, twitter


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  1. identicon
    David, 16 Nov 2017 @ 11:02am

    Summary:

    "I want it my way."

    Which brings us back to the other Al Franken news. Both make sense in the context of being so egocentric as to be completely unable to see how one's own behavior would look when applied to anybody else.

    And that would actually be a key qualification for a representative: being able to speak with qualification for more than a single person.


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