[h/t Nancy D. We have repeatedly seen Google refuse to pay for the news they datamine and use to drive traffic–you know, words written by journalists (or as they are known in the Googleplex “keywords”. Google recently threatened to pull out of Australia if they were forced to pay for the news that in part drives their platform’s success. And of course, Facebook says “me too” like some AOL troll. For some of us, the idea of forcing Google to withdraw from a market is a delicious idea, but what’s better is what Microsoft has done–agreed to pay the fair price and not try to get something for nothing, a hallmark of the Internet. Microsoft president Brad Smith lays it out nicely with some positive indications for how Microsoft might handle similar laws in Europe.]
Why an Australian proposal offers part of what’s needed for technology, journalism and American democracy itself
By Brad Smith – President
As the dust slowly settles on a horrifying assault on the Capitol, it’s apparent that American democracy is in a fragile state. As the Economist concluded last week in its annual review of democracy around the world, the United States is “polarized not only on policy issues but on core values, and the social cohesion needed to support a ‘full democracy’ has collapsed.” Well put. Perhaps the most remarkable development in recent political history is not that Americans disagreed in 2020 about who to elect as president; it’s the fact that, after the election, so many disagreed about who had actually won.
As in so many other instances, technology has been both a positive and negative force for democracy. It has created unprecedented opportunities for people to learn about events, share their views and even organize their efforts. It was only a decade ago that technology created optimism about democracy amid an Arab Spring. And, in 2015, when two extremist brothers in France brutally killed a dozen journalists at Charlie Hebdo, almost two million people in Paris used social media to organize a peaceful Sunday march to support democracy and a free press everywhere.
But the last five years have also seen this tool become a weapon, and January 2021 unfortunately saw this come home to roost. Democracy’s cornerstone has always been the peaceful transition of power. It was far from unusual for a losing candidate to request a recount or take a dispute to court – both parts of the democratic process. But, this year, even after losing more than 50 lawsuits in a row, President Trump waged a sustained campaign that successfully persuaded tens of millions of his supporters that the election was rigged. Without this sustained disinformation barrage, it’s hard to imagine that January 6 would have become such a tragic day.
This highlights the symptoms of a deeper, two-sided disease. On the one hand, the internet and social media have unfortunately become powerful engines of disinformation and misinformation. First pioneered by the Russian government in the 2016 U.S. election, the disinformation disease has now spread much more broadly. Without new and greater restraints, there is a growing risk that more politicians and advocates will exploit the algorithms and business models underlying social media and the internet to turn disinformation into a new political tactic of choice.
There is another side of this disease, and it’s the erosion of more traditional, independent and professional journalism. In 1787, the same year Americans were drafting the Constitution, a leading British statesman reportedly gave the press its label: “The Fourth Estate.” Just as a chair needs four legs to remain sturdy, democracy has always relied on a free press to make it through difficult times. Never free of controversy, an independent press has often inflamed differing opinions. But it has helped ensure that the public considered a common set of events and had a generalized understanding of common facts. In short, independent journalism is vital to the social cohesion that is essential for democracy.