Four measures to limit the dominance of platforms like YouTube and Facebook

For our public debate, we are far too dependent on the whims of dominant companies such as Google and Facebook. The time is nigh for politicians to step in, and here are four measures they should take.

It is crucial that we can speak freely, which allows us to sharpen our thinking and ideas. A healthy public debate is essential for a functioning democracy. Yet, this is only possible if the platforms we use for that debate are a reflection of our society. Unfortunately, this is not the case right now on the internet. Our public debate takes place on a limited number of very dominant platforms. And they have their toxic business model and dominance to thank for this role. With this role, those platforms have a major influence on the form and content of our conversations. Technology companies such as Google and Facebook are thus the gatekeepers of our public debate online.

Four measures

We have to rid ourselves of that. We must again be able to choose what topics we would like to discuss and without depending on those large technology companies, mostly located outside the EU. You must have something to choose again. To get there, Bits of Freedom advocates four measures that policymakers can introduce. Each of those measures is aimed to work towards smaller dependence on these dominant platforms.

Dark patterns are subtle forms of manipulation of the user, deliberately hidden in the design of platforms.

1. Dominant platforms must be interoperable. The services of these platforms must be publicly accessible through an open and free protocol. In this way, competing services can let their users communicate with the users on the dominant platform.

2. Dominant platforms must allow third parties to access certain parts of their services. Such platforms must be forced (if necessary) to unbundle the hosting and the management of information, and make a publicly accessible API available for this management. Competitors can then develop independent services that supplement, change or replace the functionality of the platform.

The result is a tracking industry in which users are not only followed within the platform itself, but also secretly on the wider web.

3. Basing advertisements on user behaviour should be prohibited. Advertisements can still be personalized, but can for example be based on the content the user is viewing. Ads that are based on user behaviour can only exist if the behaviour of those users is tracked and users are profiled. The result is a tracking industry in which users are not only followed within the platform itself, but also secretly on the wider web. To stop this that user surveillance, ads based on user tracking should be prohibited. Advertisements can still be personalized, for example by placing advertisements for from a hardware store, next to a video on DIY home improvement.

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4. The use of so-called dark patterns should be prohibited. All kinds of user manipulation are hidden in the design of the dominant platforms. Once a video ends, YouTube automatically starts the next one – one that is selected based on Google’s interests, not the user’s. These nefarious designs secretly take away the user’s autonomy.

Here’s Bits of Freedom’s advice to policy makers

Action is needed urgently

Action is needed urgently as, among other things, our democracy is at stake. Policy makes can start implementing those four measures right away. These interventions would fit in well with the rules governing platforms as proposed by the European Commission at the end of 2020. These four measures should bring us closer to a pluralistic communication landscape. That is essential for a healthy public debate.

The article was first published here. Read in Dutch.

(Image credit: Bitteschoen.tv/Hertie School)

(Contribution by: Rejo Zenger, Policy Advisor, Bits of Freedom)