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Facebook and Google must move away from the zero-sum game

Now, Facebook confronts a major advertising boycott in the United States around its tolerance of racial intolerance, a play that is gaining momentum and wiping significant value off its share price. Facebook may argue that it is only a mirror for a fractured society, but the challenge of #stophateforprofit is for the corporation to take responsibility not just for its content, but the way it makes its money.

The Facebook business model is to observe the behaviour of its users, reduce them to stereotypes and then package this data to commercial and political advertisers. Its algorithms feed off “engagement”, which is fuelled by outrage, fomenting a commercial incentive for bad behaviour. Moderation is woefully inadequate, outsourced and post facto. If Facebook were serious about keeping the network clean it would hire the tens of thousands of workers required to do it. This has left Facebook with a potent advertising machine which many advertisers don’t feel safe to use.

If Facebook were serious about keeping the network clean it would hire the tens of thousands of workers required to do it.

If Facebook were serious about keeping the network clean it would hire the tens of thousands of workers required to do it.Credit:Bloomberg

Meanwhile, Google is facing global scrutiny over plans to build on its own data surveillance model by acquiring Fitbit, the wearable device that tracks user’s movements, footsteps, heart rate and geographical location. This is a major play in the expansion of surveillance that will consolidate its dominance of digital advertising and turbo-charge its entry into health insurance and even diagnostics.

With increasing scepticism of the data-harvesting practices of companies, Fitbit users will be rightfully concerned that they are becoming producers, rather than consumers, of the product. Regulators, including the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, will now determine whether putting so much personal information in the hands of a company that is a gateway between other businesses and consumers is in the public interest.

As the takeover works its way through the ACCC, an even more fundamental struggle is uniting the two dominant platforms against the public interest. Right now, Facebook and Google are being directed by the government to negotiate an arrangement with media organisations over their use of news content to power their networks.

With news powering about 5 per cent of Facebook content and a significant chunk of Google’s publisher advertising business, fair compensation would provide a pool of funds to rebuild Australia’s ailing media. Of course, the platforms are pushing push back hard, arguing they are doing the news services a favour even as they eat them alive.

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But if they can reach an accommodation, they just might land a resolution to the issues that exposed their vulnerabilities during this great disruption: first, a renewed social contract that doesn’t see the growth of Big Tech as a zero-sum game, where success leads to the destruction of institutions we value; and, more fundamentally, a stronger media working in concert with the platforms, delivering better-quality, fact-based content to a world that needs facts more than ever.

Peter Lewis is the director of The Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology.

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