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Taming the Tech Monster

Monopoly control over millions of people’s personal data, and over the flow of news and information online, poses a clear and present danger to the future of democracy. As the past few years of data breaches, hacks, and electoral sabotage make clear, the West urgently needs to develop a new model of digital governance.

BRUSSELS – When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the European Parliament in May, he boasted that his company pays tens of thousands of moderators to scrutinize, review, and – if necessary – remove abusive Facebook posts. Apparently, these so-called cleaners, furnished by outsourcing firms in India and elsewhere, are the hidden power deciding what may and may not appear on the platform.

Zuckerberg offered this information with the hopes of reassuring us, but his testimony had the opposite effect. The idea that multinational companies like Facebook now determine what people see online is both preposterous and dangerous. Such privatization of our civil liberties is unprecedented. The Catholic Church may have wielded near-absolute power over the availability of information during the Middle Ages, but at least its adherents recognized it as a moral authority. Zuckerberg is nothing of the kind.

Owing to Facebook – and to social media generally – the speed with which news circulates has grown ever faster, and yet free and unbiased access to it has increasingly been attenuated. If you walk up to a sidewalk news kiosk, you will find “left-wing” satirical magazines like Private Eye and Charlie Hebdo displayed next to “capitalist” publications like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times. But if you look at your Facebook news feed, you will see almost only stories that reinforce your own political views.