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Among the many transformations taking place in the U.S. economy, none is more salient than the growth of gigantic Internet platforms. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter, already powerful before the COVID-19 pandemic, have become even more so during it, as so much of everyday life moves online. As convenient as their technology is, the emergence of such dominant corporations should ring alarm bells—not just because they hold so much economic power but also because they wield so much control over political communication. These behemoths now dominate the dissemination of information and the coordination of political mobilization. That poses unique threats to a well-functioning democracy that are even more serious than the dominant platforms pose to market competition.
There now might be an emerging consensus that Big Tech companies pose real threats to democracy, but there is little agreement about how to respond. Some have argued that the government needs to break up Facebook and Google. Others have called for more stringent regulations to limit these companies’ exploitation of data. Without a clear way forward, many critics have defaulted to pressuring platforms to self-regulate, encouraging them to take down dangerous content and do a better job of curating the material carried on their sites. We propose a practical way forward that emphasizes a technological intervention: taking away the platforms’ role as gatekeepers of content. This approach would entail inviting a new group of competitive “middleware” companies to enable users to choose how information is presented to them. And it would likely be more effective than a quixotic effort to break these companies up.
Barak Richman is the Katharine T. Bartlett Professor of Law and Business Administration at Duke University. His primary research interests include the economics of contracting, new institutional economics, antitrust, and healthcare policy. In 2006, he co-edited with ClarkHavighurst a symposium volume of Law and Contemporary Problems entitled “Who Pays? Who Benefits? Distributional Issues in Health Care,” and his book Stateless Commerce was published by Harvard University Press in 2017. During 2019-2020, he was a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford University School of Medicine and was a member of Stanford’s Programon Democracy and the Internet’s Working Group on Platform Scale.
Francis Fukuyama is the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), Mosbacher Director of FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), and Director of Stanford’s Masters in International Policy Program. He is also a professor (by courtesy) of Political Science. Dr. Fukuyama has written widely on issues in development and international politics. His 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, has appeared in over twenty foreign editions. His most recent book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, was published in September 2018.
ISP, TAP (Thurman Arnold Project )