• Opinion
  • April 4, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

Breaking up tech giants won’t curb their harms. Digital literacy might

Opinion: A digital divide has separated Americans financially and politically

tech giants

This piece was written by Kevin Frazier, MPP/JD candidate at Harvard Kennedy School and UC Berkeley School of Law, and Sam Campbell, a specialist at Stanford University’s Endowment office. For more like this, see our digital government newsfeed.

Senator Elizabeth Warren rightfully wants to rein in “Big Tech”. The proliferation of Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (FANG) and their digital colleagues has bitten into the profits of independent businesses, exacerbated income inequality and contributed to the souring of our civic sphere.

But Senator Warren’s proposal misses the mark. Rather than take the bite out of FANG, as Senator Warren advocates, we ought to help Americans adjust to the new world these companies have created.

The growth of tech giants is a symptom of the digital divide that has separated Americans financially and politically. The cause of that divide, though, is a failure to reorient our education systems, workforce training opportunities and economic incentives around how best to compete in and contribute to a digital economy.

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What Senator Warren gets right — labelling the giants as monopolies — serves as the source of her error. The tech giants are here to stay precisely because of their monopolistic traits. Just as the Bell telephone monopoly persisted until both the technology and competition rendered a monopoly unacceptable, Facebook — to name one — will be favoured as a monopoly until our data is transferable across platforms, which would make competition among social media providers acceptable to consumers.

For now, Americans and billions of other users benefit from Facebook’s network effects — having all your friends on one site makes it more enticing for other friends to join and enables users to more conveniently stay connected.

Users with less digital literacy are more willing to go along with the latest trick to garner more clicks

Senator Warren’s goals — reining in tech giants, their excesses, and their outsized impact on our politics, economy, and culture — can be achieved, in part, by increasing digital literacy.

The FANG companies profit from Americans lacking online savvy; users with less digital literacy are more willing to go along with the latest trick to garner more clicks. People don’t understand nor exercise their online rights. People are unaware of how best to process viral information. And people commonly lack the skills required to fully use the sites to achieve their own goals.

Digitally literate users could hold companies more accountable to their lofty mission statements. When users educate themselves on the nitty-gritty details of the internet, they raise an effective voice for policies that align with their preferences. Case in point, when broad sets of users studied net neutrality, a complex policy discussion by any standard, they were able to nudge policy in their desired direction.

It follows that regulation that gives users more control over FANG and similar companies would at once preserve the traits that make the platforms valuable in the first place while simultaneously encouraging users to 1) better understand the product and 2) shape the product to match their preferences.

Breaking up the giants won’t quell the disruption sown by their platforms

Breaking up the giants won’t quell the disruption sown by their platforms. A divided Facebook could increase political tension by further dividing users into partisan bubbles on distinct sites. A divided Amazon won’t magically result in the restoration of independent shops. A broken up Google will lead to a slower, less helpful search experience. Reducing political trolling, the demise of small and local businesses, and reliance on Google-generated search results could probably be done with Warren’s top-down approach but the longer-lasting, more sustainable approach would come from the user-up.

The user-up approach starts in kindergarten…yes, kindergarten. Like english proficiency, achieving digital literacy is easier if pursued at an early age; just hand an iPad to a toddler and an octogenarian for a case study in how comfort with tech is correlated with youth.

From kindergarten on, mastery of interpreting information on the Internet, familiarity with coding, and a robust understanding of the rules and rights tied to Internet use have to be worked at deliberately and methodically.

Senator Warren’s approach to breaking up big-tech is akin to turning oceans of tech giants into ponds of isolated companies. A smarter approach to regulating the industry would be to unleash a tide that lifts all boats by teaching users how to sail. — Kevin Frazier & Sam Campbell

(Picture credit: Unsplash)


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