A safety belt for the Internet


Andrew Keen is executive director of the Silicon Valley innovation salon Futurecast. His latest book is “How To Fix The Future.”

SANTA ROSA, Calif. — In 1965, Ralph Nader published “Unsafe At Any Speed,” his bestselling exposé about the mortal dangers of cars without seat belts. Poorly designed cars had, Nader showed, increased the deaths on American roads by 38 percent between 1961 and 1965. The economics of what he called “highway carnage” were equally appalling, costing America more than $66 billion in today’s dollars in property damage, lost wages, and medical and insurance expenses.

Today, of course, all cars come with safety belts. That’s because in the half-century since Nader’s book, the car industry has, indeed, been held accountable for its products. But now there is a need for a new kind of safety belt. The contemporary equivalent of the out-of-control American auto industry of the past is today’s equally out-of-control big tech industry.

Products from tech giants are exploiting our democracy with “post-truth” lies. The digital revolution has become so all-consuming as to potentially kill our ability to consume anything except bite-sized nuggets of information. Researchers are discovering that social media is making our kids less happy. And the apps and platforms that now consume our lives are addictive, as New York University psychologist Adam Alter has detailed.

“In the 1960s, we swam through waters with only a few hooks: cigarettes, alcohol and drugs that were expensive and generally inaccessible,” Alter argues. “In the 2010s, those same waters are littered with hooks. There’s the Facebook hook. The Instagram hook. The porn hook. The email hook. The online shipping hook. The list is long — far longer than it’s ever been in human history, and we’re only just learning the power of these hooks.”

So, who is to provide us with defenses against these “hooks?” The history of the seat belt is instructive here. Nader’s findings in his book elicited a collective gasp from society. The result was action, through a mix of government regulation, design innovation, consumer activism, citizen engagement and improved education that triggered increasingly safe vehicles. That mix is needed now — a combined approach from all of us.

Nothing will happen without creative regulation. European regulators like E.U. Commissioner of Competition Margrethe Vestager, who is aggressively examining the antitrust case against Google, have already emitted a collective gasp about the detrimental effects of the digital revolution on society. They should be our model here.

In May, the E.U. plans to introduce an ambitious new data privacy law, the General Data Privacy Regulation (GDPR), which attempts to empower consumers against private big data corporations. Individual European governments have woken up to the threat — Germany, for example, passed a law that levies significant fines on digital media platforms that allow the publication of illegal content.

American lawmakers need to take note. The Federal Trade Commission needs to look much more critically at the antitrust issue, particularly in terms of Google’s dominance of the informational economy and Amazon’s stranglehold on e-commerce. Congress needs to work on its own data protection law, which should learn from and improve on the European GDPR.

Most importantly, American politicians need to level the regulatory playing field so that the private superpowers of Silicon Valley are treated like accountable media companies under the law. They need to look critically at the notorious Safe Harbor provision of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which enables Internet companies to escape accountability for the illegal content published on their platforms.

Good regulation always stimulates innovation. The introduction of the GDPR in Europe is already triggering a new wave of digital start-ups that take advantage of this new law to provide consumers with services that protect their data privacy instead of exploiting it. The same explosion of entrepreneurial innovation will accompany effective antitrust regulation that enables start-ups to take on dominant powers.

The U.S. government antitrust investigation of Microsoft in the late 1990s triggered the Web 2.0 revolution of the early 2000s. But today, we are back in the anti-competitive environment of an economy dominated by a tiny handful of winner-take-all companies.

But while some of the costs of digital seatbelts need to be incorporated by Silicon Valley, we also need to pay for genuinely consumer-friendly products. Just as we use cash to buy food, rent or transportation, we should also be paying cash for our online search or social networking.  Online accountability is a two-way street. If we want our online data to be genuinely protected, we have to pay for that privilege.

Ultimately, we are all personally accountable for wearing our new seat belts that will protect us from monopolistic companies and exploitative technologies. Adam Alter’s “hooks” can only be confronted by each of us individually. No new law or product will completely protect us.

Just as with tobacco, fast food or gambling, it’s our job as responsible adults with free will to make sure that we are buckled up for the digital journey. This requires self-discipline and personal accountability. It means that we each have to personally confront and master our digital demons. Most importantly, it means that we have to pass on self-regulatory wisdom to our kids and students.

However, just as car seat belts were eventually developed in Detroit, our digital seat belts are going to need to be designed in Silicon Valley. The good news is that this is already beginning to happen. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, who has been described as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience,” has gone as far as to argue that software developers should sign a code of conduct, a kind of digital Hippocratic oath, promising to design products that respect their users. Harris believes there needs to be new design and certification standards to ensure against addictive products.

Some things never change. In 1965, Ralph Nader observed that: “A great problem of contemporary life is how to control the power of economic interests that ignore the harmful effects of their applied science and technology.” Fifty years on, we must tackle that problem again, this time to deliver digital seat belts to protect ourselves from the myriad hooks of the Internet age.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.