And so I think we accept these platforms as being neutral, they pose as neutral. Even if you look at their looks — a search engine seems like it's a mechanical thing, but it's not a mechanical thing. It imposes the economic interests of these companies on the platform, and it imposes their values on the platform as well.
On how tech companies' algorithms are not impartial
All these algorithms are constructed by human beings to serve human purposes. They're systems, and these systems are devised in order to create certain outcomes. And so the fact that they're so invisible, I think actually enhances their power because most people have the dimmest awareness, if any awareness at all, that Facebook is being patterned to try to give them some information above others.
Right now, Facebook is obsessed with promoting video because that's where money is to be had. So right now, Facebook is loading up your News Feed in order to give you much more video. And there are all these media companies — I bet NPR is one of them — that makes certain commitments to certain editorial processes and investments in certain editorial apparatus in order to achieve certain results on Facebook because Facebook brings a lot of traffic. It's where users are. And then when Facebook, somewhat capriciously, decides to change its strategy, it hurts all of the organizations that are dependent upon Facebook.
Disclosure: Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live video streams that run on the site.
On why the threat of big tech companies is an existential one
If you're of a certain age, you have a good appreciation for the ways in which we've all become a little bit cyborg. I grew up using maps and having a sense of direction, and now I have a phone. I used to try to remember numbers, and now I ... can just call them up instantly. And that's great. But what's happening right now is that we're in a phase of human evolution where we're merging with machines.
It's not necessarily a bad thing, but we're not just merging with machines. We've been merging with tools since the beginning of human evolution and arguably, that's one of the things that makes us human beings. But what we're merging with [now] are machines that are run by companies that act as filters for the way in which we interact and process the world.
And so the values of those companies become our values. We become dependent on these companies in a way in which we've never really been dependent on companies before. And this could all work out in a utopian, beautiful sort of way, or it could unfold as a dystopian, sci-fi nightmare. And I just think that because the stakes are so high, we have to be extra skeptical.
On the lack of regulation to limit the influence of tech companies
The Internet was invented in an age when our entire approach to regulation has been extremely lax, and so you'd think, "OK, there might be a law on the books that governs how these corporations can handle our data."
Well, you could kind of pull pieces of [legal] code ... that shows maybe instances where companies could potentially cross boundaries, but there really isn't a coherent approach that we have to regulating these companies, and so they have an incredible amount of freedom. ...
There's this proud American tradition of worrying about the power of communication companies. That going all the way back to the founding, we've tried to limit the power of monopolies that played a role in our democracy. And so even with the U.S. Postal Service to take the first communications monopoly in the United States, we didn't let them get into the telegraph business. And when Western Union got a monopoly in the telegraph business, we were careful not to let them get into telephony.