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The American Prospect - October 2, 2019

"... The neoliberal internet era is over. A new wave of intervention is coming. Yet the tech firms have now grown so large and powerful, and the Trumpian right wing so opposed to journalism and its norms, that the shape of things to come is unclear again. The question now is whose interests and values will prevail in the digital world that politics will shape. Monopoly, surveillance, and disinformation are the immediate stakes; the ultimate issue is what kind of society we want to live in."

In just two decades, digital technology and the internet have gone from exciting the dreams of a revolutionary new era to embodying fears about a world gone deeply wrong. The digital revolution now threatens to undermine values that it was supposed to advance—personal freedom, democracy, trustworthy knowledge, even open competition. It isn’t as though the technology did this to us on its own, or that we stumbled absentmindedly into an alternative dystopian universe. Today’s technological regime grew out of critical choices to ignore lessons of the past and allow private power to go unregulated.

Three problems—monopoly, surveillance, and disinformation—sum up what’s gone wrong and what needs to be fought and fixed in order to have any hope of recovering the promise of the new technology.

The explosive growth of the online economy in the 1990s and early 2000s appeared to validate the idea that markets were best left to themselves. The internet of that era was neoliberalism’s greatest triumph. After the federal government financed key breakthroughs and then opened the internet to commercial development, digital innovation and entrepreneurship created new online means of exchange, new wealth, and new communities. But that online economy now looks altogether different with the rise of platform monopolies. Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft control whole ecosystems of the digital world, dominating key choke points for commerce and news.

Just as the early internet fostered the illusion that it was inherently supportive of competition, so it fostered the illusion that it was inherently protective of personal autonomy. After all, no one compelled you to disclose your true identity online. Yet the digital world today has made possible the most comprehensive system of surveillance ever created; networked devices track our every movement and communication. A new form of enterprise has emerged that Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism,” as Google, Facebook, and other firms sweep up data about our lives, preferences, personalities, and emotions “for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales.”

The digital revolution began under the state, moved to the market, and now illustrates what goes wrong when the dominant players are unrestrained by law.

The reality has turned out to be less benign. The online economy has destroyed the traditional business model of journalism, resulting in a dramatic decline in professional reporting. And because Google and Facebook dominate digital advertising, no alternative online model has emerged capable of financing the same reporting capacities, particularly at the regional and local level. Meanwhile, social media platforms have replaced the old mass media gatekeepers, shaping the public’s exposure to news and debate through their algorithms. Those algorithms—for example, in Facebook’s news feed, Google’s search and YouTube recommendation engine, and Twitter’s trending topics—now influence which content and viewpoints gain visibility among users. Instead of promoting better-informed public debate, however, social media have become powerful vectors of disinformation, polarization, and hatred. ...
Read full article at The American Prospect