Commentary

Digital Democracy? More Like Digital Dictatorship

Great news! Internet ad revenues surged yet again in 2014, reaching nearly $50 billion dollars in the United States. This, according to a new report from IAB, represents a 16% increase over the previous year; compared to 20 years ago it’s an increase of… well, infinity.

Isn’t it awesome? The way peer-to-peer communication has flourished? The way we’ve gotten rid of all those pesky gatekeepers, powerbrokers and censors? Finally, we can say whatever we want. Finally, we have all the power. After all, nobody owns the Internet.

Except, of course, for those who do -- and, in the United States, that happens to be Google and Facebook. Those two companies alone represent over 60% of the total online ad industry. Add the next 8 companies on the list, and the Top Ten account for 71% of the market. The Top 25? They covered 82%.

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It’s good news for Google and Facebook, obviously. And the trajectory for them certainly doesn’t look like it’s slowing anytime soon. For one thing, Facebook’s first quarter 2015 ad revenues, for example, were $3.32 billion, up 46% from a year prior. 

But the two of them have also laid claim to — and are battling over — the fastest-growing segments of the ad market: video and mobile. Mobile represented 73% of Facebook’s first quarter ad revenue. And Facebook video views are now up to 4 billion a day. Google’s YouTube hit that milestone in 2012, but since they don’t release viewership numbers there’s no way to know whether or how quickly Facebook is homing in on pole position.

So what’s the problem? It’s the same problem we always get when too much power is concentrated in too few hands. We lose the robustness, perspective, diversity and choice that come from a vibrantly competitive ecosystem. 

In this case, where the two power players are both content gatekeepers, we also lose visibility into the informational choices that are being made for us. And as Google and Facebook continue their near-total control over what we look at online, this phenomenon only gets worse. Last month, the New York Times reported that Facebook will be partnering with them along with BuzzFeed, National Geographic and others to allow those media companies to publish directly on Facebook.com instead of linking back to their own sites. 

In response to the announcement, Columbia Journalism Review columnist Trevor Timm published a wide-ranging treatise called, “The most concerning element of Facebook’s potential new power.” That element, according to Timm, is “the right to choose between the free expression of ideas or to instead impose censorship when it deems content unworthy.” 

This is a big deal when dealing with extremists and hard-liners; Timm describes multiple scenarios in which foreign actors have been successful at pressuring Facebook, Twitter and others to remove content they don’t like. But it’s not just tyrants and terrorists we have to worry about; it’s our own ability to look at these information channels with any kind of critical eye. 

Back to Timm: “How will [Facebook’s] algorithms handle stories posted directly to Facebook that question Facebook’s monopoly status? How will it handle news organizations questioning its lobbying ties with the government? …If the Washington Post posted its PRISM story about collusion between tech companies and the NSA directly on Facebook — a story that Facebook disputed — would its algorithms subtly suppress it? Would a Facebook employee ever so gently suggest that maybe the Washington Post may want to think twice before publishing, given what’s at stake for their relationship?”

We live in a democratically elected digital dictatorship, and we’re the ones who voted them in. I hope we’re happy with the outcome of the election.

1 comment about "Digital Democracy? More Like Digital Dictatorship".
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  1. Ted Mcconnell from Lucid Llc., April 24, 2015 at 12:33 p.m.

    Yep. What happens when the quarterback turns out to be the referee?

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