A bizarre oversight in Facebook coverage (called interoperability)

It’s clear by now that Facebook is knowingly and intentionally serving up vast amounts of misinformation, hyperbole, and incitement in order to make more money. It’s also widely recognized that its behavior is having a profoundly destructive experience on our discourse and our democracy.

So the question of how our society can defend against this going forward should be a major element in the ongoing coverage.

Whistleblower Frances Haugen‘s revelations make the notion that Facebook could reform itself even more laughable than it already was. The alternatives I see most discussed in the media coverage involve either government regulatory micromanagement or making Big Tech companies legally responsible for their users’ conduct. But I sure as hell don’t want the government involved in regulating speech. And people I trust say that eliminating immunity would be a cure worse than the disease.

One better answer is to break Facebook up – a scenario that gets remarkably little attention despite the fact that it’s long overdue, that the Federal Trade Commission is currently suing Facebook for antitrust violations, and that President Biden has staffed key posts with anti-monopolists.

But an even better answer gets almost no attention at all from the journalists who cover this story.

Its premise is simple: Individuals should be able to choose their own rules about what they see, rather than letting Facebook’s algorithms do it.

To achieve this ideal future state, you need just two things:

    • A legal requirement that Facebook and other huge, public-square-analogous social networks make it possible for people to access their data from outside the app itself. (Which would be radical, but doable.)
    • Software that lets individuals sort through their data from any number of social networks according to transparent, individually configurable rules. (Which would be complicated, but doable.)

The concept is known in tech circles as “interoperability,” “competitive interoperability,” or “adversarial interoperability.”

It doesn’t require the government to regulate speech. It doesn’t require you to delete Facebook, disconnect from your friends, or migrate your data. It doesn’t require there to be one algorithmic solution to all things.

It’s an appropriately decentralized, open-sourced, technologically elegant way of fixing the problem.

And it’s futureproof. Who knows what new social network may come along next? With interoperability, it doesn’t matter. The more the merrier. In fact, if you think about the distant future, it’s pretty obvious that we won’t want to be checking 20 different apps all the time, we’ll want some sort of agent to help us find the good stuff.

As the enormous-brained technological visionary and writer Cory Doctorow puts it, it’s really about fixing the internet:

One approach is to “fix the companies” — like forcing Facebook to fight “disinformation” or making Google filter all user content for suspected copyright violations.

The problem with this approach is that it’s not clear whether the tech companies can solve these problems (for example, no copyright filter can distinguish between permitted uses like parody or commentary and infringing ones).

A rule that requires Big Tech to throw everything at unsolvable problems will make the cost of entry into the tech sector so expensive that Big Tech will get to rule unchallenged, forever. And the problems still won’t get solved.

There’s another approach, though — rather than fixing tech companies, we can fix the internet. We can empower communities and individuals to escape monopoly platforms, through interoperability.

If you don’t like how FB moderates its platform, interop would let you leave — and still stay connected to the family, community and customers you leave behind.

Fixing the tech companies won’t work. The problem isn’t just that Mark Zuckerberg is unfit to be the unelected, perpetual lifestyle czar of 3 billion people — it’s that no one should have that job.

That’s why, in addition to all the antitrust remedies that trustbusters have wielded against abusive monopolists for more than a century, we need modern tools — like interoperability. Bills like the ACCESS Act will get us part of the way:

But it’s not enough to mandate that Big Tech open up its interfaces — we also have to empower users and the toolsmiths who serve them to connect to dominant platforms in the ways that serve users, not corporate shareholders.

So why doesn’t this concept get more attention outside of wonky circles? I asked another one of my genius tech gurus about this: Ethan Zuckerman, who recently founded  a new research center called the Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and who has noodled around with software to give users a single tool to control and filter social media feeds.

Zuckerman’s answer was a bit too personal, but fascinating:

Why doesn’t interop get more love from policymakers and others? You and I are old, Dan. Most people don’t remember the tools that worked well in federated systems: email running on many different servers, blogs aggregated via RSS into a single reader, Usenet newsreaders, Jabber bringing together incompatible chat systems. There’s a huge number of internet users who intuitively understand complex services like Facebook as being run by a single company with an integrated ecosystem of websites and mobile apps – the idea that those services can and should run in someone else’s app is an unfamiliar idea.

He expressed some optimism about making interoperability a focus of legislation aimed at reforming social media:

I’m trying to ensure that as these bills are negotiated, people understand the importance of being able to write third-party, open source apps to access platform data. But it’s a hard banner to fly – it’s complex and subtle…

When a system like Facebook is broken and causing harm, the instinct is to break it up, to fix it or to limit its negative impacts. What’s much harder is imagining a system that’s better than Facebook at its best. That’s what interop and federation invites us to do – to imagine social media that’s lots better than what we have now because we design it, manage it and control it. That’s the challenge – getting us to imagine possible futures, not just fixing the present we have.

In the meantime, I’ll at least take some solace from the growing calls for greater transparency.

Here’s Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson calling on “Facebook to be completely transparent about how its algorithms work and about the process for adjusting them.”

And here is Stanford Cyber Policy Center director Nathaniel Persily, also in the Washington Post, writing that Congress should pass a law “granting scholars from outside the social media companies access to the information held by them — while protecting user privacy.”

And here is progressive activist Eli Pariser, reminding us of the Politico piece he co-authored about the need to reinvent digital public squares, by investing is things like a new Corporation for Public Software.

A long, long time ago, I thought that factual information — as curated by honest, informed journalists — would dominate the internet. Obviously I was very wrong.

But my hopes now lie in the prospect of intelligently selected layers – maybe even curated by honest, informed journalists. That vision includes online annotation. It also includes transparent and customizable agents or algorithms so that instead of letting Facebook, Amazon and Google decide what you see, you apply your own rules on top of their data.

That, I think, is a possible future worth mentioning as we delve further into the unapologetic, continued destructiveness of the dominant social media networks.

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