The Tech Giants Promise to Heal Themselves, but the Internet Was Built to Hate

The self-serve, untouched-by-human-hands model is meant to give giant ad companies plausible deniability about what it is they’re selling—and who they’re selling it to.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

It’s been one hell of a month already for big tech. First, the Equifax mega-leak, and then the news, reported by ProPublica, The Daily Beast and Buzzfeed, respectively—that Facebook, Twitter and Google’s self-serve systems let advertisers directly target people who think “Jews ruin the world,” are interested in keywords like “n**ger” and “wetback,” or that "black people ruin neighborhoods."

That self-serve, untouched-by-human-hands model is meant to give these giant ad companies credible deniability about what it is they're selling, and who they’re selling it to. It wasn’t us, just our code!

And that’s not to mention the Russian-linked accounts advertising—presumably to people who the network has identified as race warriors, though Facebook isn’t saying—a real-world, and really hateful event in Twin Falls in the midst of the election. We don’t know that happened because Facebook ‘fessed up up in the course of trying to sell us on 2020 presidential hopeful Mark Zuckerberg’s nonsense about the social network “building communities,” but because three Daily Beast reporters broke that news.

Was that an aberration, or one of a handful or dozens or hundreds of such events? Did anyone at Facebook know about this at the time? Those are among the many known unknowns, what with the company valued as half a trillion dollars based on how much it knows about each of us so that advertisers can hit the right targets refusing to share any real information about the event it was paid to promote with the people impacted, the public or even Congress (it is turning some of that information over after it was subpoenaed by special investigator Bob Mueller, the Wall Street Journal reports).

The good news is that the public and media are finally catching up with what Joel Kotkin and others have been warning for years now about the danger of tech oligarchs with market shares the robber barons of the 19th century would envy. If we really want to restore America confidence, we’re overdue for a new era of trust busting.

Just imagine what real news outlets could do to combat “fake news” if Facebook and Google weren’t sucking up all the money that could go into actual reporting while making absurd noises after the election about fixing the problems they've created in the hopes that it's not too late to keep their largely unregulated gravy trains rolling.

Or what companies and codemakers could do to protect our data if they actually gave a damn about doing that, and not just mitigating the p.r. damage after the latest, inevitable leak.

As Quinn Norton wrote in a brilliant essay about Software as Long Con, code-makers are building bridges they know will fail, and insisting that’s what the public wants. Nope!

It turns out that moving fast and breaking things is one thing Silicon Valley types say that isn’t just jargon — and that works well for the people moving fast to get paid as they break things but not so well for the rest of us, treated as all-but involuntary beta-testers for massive information systems designed not for resilience but to eventually fail.

And it turns out that at a time when the NSA can’t keep its own crown jewels from getting stolen and used by common crooks (or perhaps state actors impersonating them) to cause massive damage to hospital systems and more, the state could be the last bulwark between us and Uber for Everything.

I know that the Big Five don’t have their own armies yet, but the line between states and service providers is getting blurrier, and will only continue to do so. Before James Comey was Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s common Public Enemy Number One, he was the FBI boss trying, and failing, to make Apple give up the master keys to our phones that they built after Edward Snowden’s leaks.

The Senate could start with a fresh look at the law that hit drinking age this year and that allows for a lot of the hate speech and wild west feel of the internet—specifically section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which states that “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

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Which is at once a crucial bulwark of free speech and a get-out-of-jail free card for the big publishers that, so long as they scrape and profit from our content rather than providing their own, aren’t legally responsible for whatever shows up there. And which is why so many of these companies insist they’re just middlemen—why Uber swears it isn’t a cab company, and Airbnb that it isn’t a hotelier and Facebook that it’s not a publisher even as they choke off the cabbies and hoteliers and publishers.

Anyways, I’ll promote this article on Twitter, which crossposts to my Facebook account and send out a Gmail about it. And keep thinking about what I — and all of us — can do to get away from all of these bastards.