The extraordinary power of social media and digital technology is used for good every day — and at far greater magnitudes than the bad.
Positive connections are made and family relationships enhanced by the hundreds of millions. Education across divides is increased. Individuals from all walks of life gain economic opportunities. Positive social movements are energized. Lives are saved. Suicidal people literally are walked back off ledges, and life-saving medical treatments followed.
Yet as with the printing press, telephone, planes, and TV, each positive technology step is also misused. The power, ubiquity, and intimacy of digital technology has created a huge issue around privacy, and an even bigger one on information manipulation that is destructive to our politics and society.
First let’s identify five elephants in the room:
1. Companies, even with good intentions, can’t handle this without help — nor can we rely on them to be trustworthy.
2. Technology alone won’t solve the problem. This is a critical flaw in relying on the companies: They are necessarily led by innovators who think they can algorithm their way out of anything. Not this time, Hal. Evil people can get around good tech as fast as brilliant developers can invent it.
3. Our government is woefully lacking in the understanding, knowledge, and will to do what’s needed.
4. It’s not just Facebook. The problem extends to the other social networks, Amazon, Google, and Apple. To retailers, banks, governments, and more.
5. Simple platitude solutions, like “break up Facebook,” “regulate privacy,” or “we’ll all stop using these tools” won’t solve the problem.
The issue is structural and rooted in the nature and use of digital technology. We need solutions that cut across platforms and players, government and industries. Solutions that combine regulation and tech — and most of all, that inherently scale by leveraging and empowering the billions of users to prevent, mitigate, and catch the bad actions by the few.
Five pillars form the solution:
Transparency: This means knowing from whom and where the information is coming and what other information that source is presenting to whom. Platforms should be designed so that any user can drill down and across to figure out what is going on and make critical judgments. Every advertiser and publisher needs to prove who they are with a government ID and bank account information. Each has to be registered, so that users can see who they are and all they do on the network.
Line-item Opt-in: This should be explicit, enabling users to choose what information they provide to the network or company. A check-off box should be required for each of name, email address, age, gender, race, religion, medical conditions, interests, conversations, and so on. This way people can decide if they want to be targeted based on any item. Many will, and others won’t.
Always Optional Opt-out: The EU’s GDPR requires providers to offer opt-out. But people forget about such things. The rules should require an annual opt-in renewal, so that unless the consumer explicitly agrees to renew each year, they are automatically opted out.
Accountability: Regulation must require that digital providers to have the tools and policies described above, including empowering users to help report abuse. The social networks must be required to monitor and then report abuse and illegal activity to government agencies. We should not regulate what a company can collect, how long it can keep it, or whom it can target, which leads to negative unintended consequences. But we can regulate companies to be transparent, to monitor and report abuse, and to empower users to make the decisions about their information.
Education: Mandated from grade school on, this is by far the most critical factor. We must educate ourselves and our children with the knowledge and skills for this new world. Curriculum using tools, critical thinking to manage them effectively, personal information management, high-velocity content review and navigation, and civics are the foundation. Anything less in the digital age is equivalent to not knowing how to read and write in the 20th century.
We can’t expect consumers, business, educational institutions, or governments to give up the value we all receive from digital tech and social media. But we can structurally set it up and regulate it to limit what the bad actors can do, and empower the users to control their experience and thwart the evil as it comes at them.