It seems like one of the big digital platforms is in the news almost daily – and not in a positive way. Yet there has been almost no talk in the US of trying to regulate digital platforms like Facebook and Google. Europe has taken some tiny steps, but regulation there are still in the infancy state. In this country the only existing regulations that apply to the big digital platforms are antitrust laws, some weak privacy rules, and general corporate regulation from the Federal Trade Commission that protect against general consumer fraud.
Any time there has been the slightest suggestion of regulating these companies we instantly hear the cry that the Internet must be free and unfettered. This argument harkens back to the early days of the Internet when the Internet was a budding industry and seems irrelevant now that these are some of the biggest corporations in the world that hold huge power in our daily lives.
For example, small businesses can thrive or die due to a change in an algorithm on the Google search engine. Search results are so important to businesses that the billion-dollar SEO industry has grown to help companies manipulate their search results. We’ve recently witnessed the damage that can be done by nefarious parties on platforms like Facebook to influence voting or to shape public opinion around almost any issue.
Our existing weak regulations are of little use in trying to control the behavior of these big companies. For example, in Europe there have been numerous penalties levied against Google for monopoly practices, but the fines haven’t been very effective in controlling Google’s behavior. In this country our primary anti-trust tool is to break up monopolies – an extreme remedy that doesn’t make much sense for the Google search engine or Facebook.
Regulating digital platforms would not be easy because one of the key concepts of regulation is understanding a business well enough to craft sensible rules that can throttle abuses. We generally regulate monopolies and the regulatory rules are intended to protect the public from the worst consequences of monopoly use. It’s not hard to make a case that both Facebook and Google are near-monopolies – but it’s not easy to figure out what we would do to regulate them in any sensible way.
For example, the primary regulations we have for electric companies is to control profits of the monopolies to keep rates affordable. In the airline industry we regulate issues of safety to force the airlines to do the needed maintenance on planes. It’s hard to imagine how to regulate something like a search engine in the same manner when a slight change in a search engine algorithm can have big economic consequences across a wide range of industries. It doesn’t seem possible to somehow regulate the fairness of a web search.
Regulating social media platforms would be even harder. The FCC has occasionally in the past been required by Congress to try to regulate morality issues – such as monitoring bad language or nudity on the public airwaves. Most of the attempts by the FCC to follow these congressional mandates were ineffective and often embarrassing for the agency. Social platforms like Facebook are already struggling to define ways to remove bad actors from their platform and it’s hard to think that government intervention in that process can do much more than to inject politics into an already volatile situation.
One of the problems with trying to regulate digital platforms is defining who they are. The FCC today has separate rules that can be used to regulate telecommunications carriers and media companies. How do you define a digital platform? Facebook, LinkedIn and Snapchat are all social media – they share some characteristics but also have wide differences. Just defining what needs to be regulated is difficult, if not impossible. For example, all of the social media platforms gain much of their value from user-generated content. Would that mean that a site like WordPress that houses this blog is a social media company?
Any regulations would have to start in Congress because there is no other way for a federal agency to be given the authority to regulate the digital platforms. It’s not hard to imagine that any effort out of Congress would concentrate on the wrong issues, much like the rules that made the FCC the monitor of bad language. I know as a user of the digital platforms that I would like to see some regulation in the areas of privacy and use of user data – but beyond that, regulating these companies is a huge challenge.