Brooke Gladstone: When in despair over your social media platform, take comfort because digital domination is built on sand.
Cory Doctorow: It just takes one good competitor like TikTok or one big scandal like a live stream mass shooting or one big privacy debacle like Cambridge Analytica, and it can tip.
Brooke: From WNYC in New York. This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, the lifecycle of internet platforms from electrifying birth to spiraling decrepitude, or as you'll hear bleeped, enpoopification.
Cory: I think the example that everyone can relate to here is Twitter. Twitter has gone from indispensable to completely dispensable for larger and larger groups of people very quickly. When that happens, when the platform tips over and becomes a useless pilot [bleep], which is the end of en***fication, then it starts to thrash.
Brooke: In thrashing, there's people power. It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. We have spent hours dissecting the anatomy of the internet chronicling concerns about privacy, the appeal of connection, our willful, woeful, walled gardens, and the fumbled attempts to regulate any of it at all. We hadn't been clued into the systemic nature of the increasing crappiness of being on let's call it big digital until now.
News clip: The competition watchdog has opened a formal probe into Amazon and Google over concerns that they have not been doing enough to combat fake reviews on their sites.
News clip: Two San Diego women are suing Amazon and a proposed class action lawsuit.
News clip: Claiming Amazon Prime members who pay $139 a year for membership have been misled for years regarding shipping times.
News clip: This morning right out of the EU, antitrust regulators as expected charging alphabets. Google of abusive practices in its digital advertising business, the regulators are saying that Google favors its own online display advertising technology services against those of its rival.
Brooke: The tech industry, changing the world as it does in mysterious ways is bound to spark editorial tongue-clucking and laments about how it's just not the way it used to be, but this is different. Those cluckers are right. Cory Doctorow, journalist, activist, and the author of many books most recently Red Team Blues, a science fiction crime thriller, has tracked this phenomenon for a long while and knows why.
He'll be our guide, exploring and explaining the process whereby going online grows ever less rewarding and evermore repellent. To start things off, this trend should have a name, luckily, Doctorow has one he calls it en***fication. It's absolutely accurate, and totally not allowed on broadcast radio.
Cory: En****fication is the death cycle of platforms and platforms are the native form of the internet. It means you have these companies that are really neither disciplined by regulation nor by competition and who can change the rules as they go.
Brooke: Now, get into the nitty-gritty of the process, which you manage to compress into three distinct steps.
Cory: Step one, first the company is good to its users. Think about Amazon, when Amazon started, it had a lot of shareholder capital, and was able to operate at a loss. It sold you goods for less than they cost. It subsidized the price of shipping. It subsidized the price of returns. Jeff Bezos was a good-natured slob who just wanted you to have stuff below costs.
Cory: Lots of people piled in. There were lots of things that Amazon fix that were really broken for a lot of people, people who have disabilities and couldn't leave the house, people who needed to get large things. There was a point early on where Amazon started off with putting all kinds of things in Prime for free shipping.
There was this point where people on the internet were trying to find the heaviest item that you could get free shipping on. You could buy a 2-ton safe and good-natured old Uncle Jeff would pick up the shipping tab to deliver 2 tons of tempered steel to your front porch. Those were the good old days.
Brooke: You say lots of us piled in. Lots of brick-and-mortar retailers withered and died making it harder to go elsewhere.
Cory: Step one is figuring out how not just to give the users a good deal, but then spring the trap so that they don't go. Break your local retail so that the only place to shop is Amazon prepay for Prime, getting you to prepay for a year's worth of shipping. Who's going to shop anywhere else if you've already paid for the shipping? It's also getting you to prepay for a book every month.
The audible subscription packages are extraordinarily generous because that means that you would never buy an audiobook anywhere else because you've already bought the book. Then with the digital stuff, they also use digital rights management, which is this kind of encryption that locks the file to their authorized players.
You can only read a Kindle book, you can only listen to an audible book and a player that Amazon has authorized. The thing about digital rights management is that, since 1998, when Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it has been a felony to give someone a tool to remove digital rights management, even if no copyright infringement ever takes place.
If you buy one of my books on Amazon, which you can't, because none of my books are sold on Amazon with digital rights management, but if they were, and I supplied you with the tool that lets you take the DRM off, the digital rights management off, and go to a rival platform, so you could break up with Amazon, I would commit a felony punishable by a five-year prison sentence and a $500,000 fine. Those are penalties that are much stiffer than if you just stole the book.
Brooke: Wow. Then go to step two, when the platform starts to squeeze users for the betterment of their business partners.
Cory: The platform is now a thing that you're locked to. It's got all of your recurring subscriptions, all your music, or movies, or books, or everything are stuck in its walled garden. Now, they can start doing things like allocating other surpluses, as our friend in the economics trade would say, to these sellers.
Brooke: What does that mean, allocating surpluses?
Cory: Surpluses are just goodies. It's what's left over after you're running the business or what you have in your bank account that you can spread around. Amazon can run the business at a loss, but it can get money from selling shares or by borrowing money. Other surpluses might be your privacy to pitch ads to you. Amazon takes some surplus, and it starts to allocate it to those business users.
Brooke: Charges some low fees for preferential treatment.
Cory: Really low platform fees. If you're a Kindle author or an audible author, the royalties are crazily good. This is at a time when publishing is really in the toilet. Some of that is down to Amazon. Amazon has been good to its suppliers, but not all of them. Amazon ran a project called Project Gazelle. In this project, they went to their small and medium publishers, and they demanded discounts from them that were so deep that the publishers actually were losing money on their sales.
The reason it was called Project Gazelle is that the managers in charge of this were exhorted to think of themselves as cheetahs bringing down the sickly gazelles in the herd. They're making stuff cheaper, and they're offering authors really good deals because Project Gazelle is making all the publishers disappear, and so you have creative workers piling into the platform. You have readers, you have writers, you have buyers, you have sellers, and it's still a pretty good deal.
Brooke: We're still at step two, consumers won't find better prices elsewhere. Sellers won't find a bigger pile of consumers. We arrive at step three, and this is where the ominous organ chord sounds, [organ plays] because after squeezing the consumer for the business folks, the platform then squeezes the business folks to further enrich Amazon.
Cory: Amazon is turning to the merchants and saying, "Hey, if you want to come to the top of the search results, even if you're not selling the thing that our customers searching for, you can buy ads. Amazon has this $31 billion ad market now." We now have a little bit of the kind of ads we think of when we say ads, which is like you're a publisher, and you want to run ads alongside your content, but most of their ad market is just payola. It's just saying, "If you want to be the top result for Duracell, you've got to outbid everybody else who wants to be the top result for Duracell."
Brooke: Even Duracell?
Cory: The last time I searched for Duracell on Amazon, there was a banner across the top that said, "Duracell," and then in the corner it said, "Sponsored post." Duracell outbid everyone who wasn't Duracell to have a banner across the top of the screen that said, "Duracell," when you go searching specifically for Duracell.
It's important to note here that this is a withdrawal of surplus from both end users and business customers. When you type a search into Amazon, if you're looking for a gasket for the water filter in your fridge, and you type in your fridge manufacturer or water filter and gasket--
Brooke: That's awfully random, Cory, but please go on. [laughs]
Cory: We just bought one. It's exactly the kind of thing that it used to be like, "Oh, God, do I have to figure out where to get this rubber ring that is precisely this size?" You type that in, and if Amazon is being kind to you, the top result is that thing. It's an incredible service actually. When Amazon opens the floodgates to say you can bid against it, then you get all kinds of stuff, including things that don't fit your fridge.
It's just because Amazon has done the math and said, "Overall, allowing people to advertise anything to any search term gets us more business than the ill will generated by people at the periphery who do irrational things like advertise the wrong size gasket against your fridge manufacturer."
Brooke: Sum this up.
Cory: Step one, buyers or end users are lured in with a good offer, but they're also locked in with subtle things that keep them from leaving if the offer gets worse. Then things are made worse for the buyers to make things better for the sellers. Once you have buyers and sellers who are locked in and can't leave, life is made worse for them and life is made infinitely better for the shareholders who own the platform.
Brooke: Walk us through the three steps of Facebook's en***fication.
Cory: Facebook is a canonical case of en***fication. When Facebook started, everyone already had a social media account with MySpace. Facebook's pitch to MySpace users was, "Come to Facebook and tell us who matters to you. Tell us who your friends are. If they're on the platform, anytime they say something that they want their friends to know about, we'll show it to you. Just reverse chronological order feed of everything that the people you care about have to say. That's the first stage. We're not spying on you. We're showing you the things that the people you like are saying."
Stage two is they want to bring in two kinds of business customers, advertisers, and we'll call them publishers, but it's publishers, it's performers, it's brands, it's TV networks, it's anyone who wants to reach an audience. To the advertisers, they say, "Remember when we told our users that we were never going to spy on them? We've actually got a ton of surveillance data on them, and we will let you use that really cheaply."
To the media companies, they said, "Hey, you need a funnel to drive traffic to your own website, so post an excerpt from your article along with a link. Then to the users, they said, "Do you remember when we promised you that we were only going to show you the things that the people you cared about had to say? Well, we're altering the deal a little here. We're also going to nonconsensually ram down your eyeballs, brief excerpts from media articles and advertisements."
Step one, we're going to show you what the people that you like have to say, and we're not going to spy on you. Step two, we're going to be good to our business customers. We're going to spy on you. Target ads to you, show you the stuff that you never asked to see, which is content for media brands and performers and publishers.
Brooke: Facebook was a really helpful platform for media companies, but then--
Cory: Then they'd start to say, "Actually, we're going to show your stuff less frequently unless you're more generous in what you put on the platform." You structure your material so that it lives on Facebook and never leaves anywhere else, and even then, Facebook still wants you to pay to boost your content, to reach your own subscribers. For advertisers, well, Facebook starts to do a lot of ad fraud.
Brooke: What do you mean ad fraud?
Cory: For example, Facebook and Google engaged in a secret unlawful collusive arrangement called Jedi Blue that was identified in the Texas Attorney General's antitrust case where they just agreed that they were going to charge advertisers more, pay publishers less and pocket the difference.
Brooke: What about Meta?
Cory: [chuckles] Here's Facebook. They have made this bad deal for users. They've made this bad deal for advertisers, they made this bad deal for publishers, but they all feel like they can't leave. Even if, every time they log in, every time they write a check, they're just like, "Ugh, this is terrible." The thing about that equilibrium where you've got just enough surplus in to keep people using it, but not so much that there's any extra, it's brittle.
It just takes one good competitor like TikTok or one big scandal, like a livestream mass shooting, or one big privacy debacle like Cambridge Analytica, and it can tip. We're talking about Facebook, but I think the example that everyone can relate to here is Twitter. Twitter has gone from indispensable to completely dispensable for larger and larger groups of people, businesses, movements, and so on very quickly.
When that happens, when the platform tips over and becomes a useless pile of [bleep] which is the end of en***fication, then it starts to thrash. Mark Zuckerberg has to pivot, which is Silicon Valley for thrash. Pivoting in his case is, "Let's all be legless, sexless, highly surveilled, low polygon cartoon characters in a virtual world named after a satire from a dystopian cyberpunk novel."
Brooke: There are consumers who argue that their platforms are still working for them.
Cory: People aren't lying when they say they get value out of these services. That's why we use them. The thing that the platforms want us to think is that there is no way to arrange their products and services such that all the things that we hate about them wouldn't come with the things that we love about them. That they are inseparable, that surveillance is a part of search and could not ever be anything but a part of search.
We know that you can make a Facebook without spying on people. How do we know that? Because Facebook used to be the social media service that didn't spy on you. What these platforms would like you to believe is what Margaret Thatcher wanted us to believe.
Brooke: There is no alternative.
Cory: There is no alternative. To paraphrase whoever said it, maybe it was Zizek, maybe it was Jameson. It is harder to imagine the end of the world itself than it is to imagine the end of Amazon.
Brooke: Next up, I ask Cory if this is just classic capitalism at work, or if big digital is just different. Plus, the mystery of the giant teddy bear. This is On the Media.
This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone with the great Cory Doctorow. We've outlined the three steps taken by big digital media platforms like Facebook, Amazon, TikTok, and Twitter to get richer and get worse. This is the part where you explain, I guess, why the corrosion and corruption in the service provided by these huge platforms is not just possible, but inevitable.
Before we do that, do you want to push against the idea that big digital is just different from everything that ever came before? Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, and the first founding president of Facebook, wrote a mea culpa about using the ability to leverage dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel so good to steal our time and attention. You've written that tech exceptionalism isn't where we should go for our answers.
Cory: Neurotransmitters are real, but stimulus regresses to the mean. It is absolutely true that the first time I read an Upworthy headline, like Seven Amazing Things About Your Socks, You Won't Believe the Third one. I was like, "I really want to find out about the third one," but by the time I'd seen that headline 200 times, maybe it's true, they've established a foothold on human free will.
Maybe it's true, and this is the more likely explanation given the historic evidence, is they found a small temporary advantage that will erode over time just like $10.99 maybe didn't seem like $11 at one point. Today, for all, but the smallest children, $10.99 is indistinguishable from $11. Let us at least ponder the possibility that they aren't evil sorcerers, but rather ordinary mediocrities who've managed to corner a market.
Brooke: Now, let's talk about what is undeniably different about digital.
Brooke: The speed in which they can change the game.
Cory: Absolutely. I call this twiddling, and we get back to this idea of evil sorcerers versus ordinary mediocrities. If JPMorgan or John D. Rockefeller wanted to bankrupt a ferry line by laying a railroad line and offering below-cost shipping to make sure that the ferry goes out of business and no longer competes with them, they don't get to click a mouse and lay some track.
When Jeff Bezos wanted to stop diapers.com after they left his offer to buy them out, he clicked a mouse and lost 100 million dollars selling diapers below cost. As soon as diapers.com was broke, he clicked a mouse and the price went back up again. It is not that the new generation of tech barons are doing anything that the old generation of tech barons didn't want to do. They're just doing it faster with computers.
Brooke: The reason that the big platforms can do what they do is because they are monopolies, and you wrote that the best time to prevent monopoly formation was 40 years ago, and the second best time is now.
Cory: During the golden age of antitrust enforcement, which is loosely speaking like FDR to Reagan, there were a large number of bases on which we attacked monopolies and tried to prevent them from forming. That revolved around things like whether a company would gain too much political influence or whether it would be able to abuse its workers, or whether it would foreclose on innovation. In the Reagan era, this kind of fringe figure named Robert Bork, who you may remember as the guy that Reagan tried to put on the Supreme Court and failed, he wrote this genuinely bizarre book called The Antitrust Paradox. He argues two things. That monopolies are often formed because they're efficient, and therefore, fence out all the competitors, and we don't want to punish efficient companies. Then he makes another argument that is just bizarre, which is that Congress knew this, and never wanted to fight monopolies.
Cory: This is just not true.
Brooke: Had he ever heard of Teddy Roosevelt?
Cory: More to the point, John Sherman, Tecumseh Sherman's brother, who in 1890 when he was stamping for the Sherman Act in front of the Senate, and let me get this quote for you. He said, "If we would not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over the production, transportation, and sale of the necessaries of life. If we would not submit to an emperor, we should not submit to an autocrat of trade."
This is not a man who's concerned about efficiency. This is a man who's concerned about power and about the corrupting influence of large firms and the autocrats who run them. Bork makes these two arguments, but there's really no question about what the statutes say. The Sherman Act, the Federal Trade Act, the Clayton Act, these are very clear that monopolists are able to seize the power of democratically accountable lawmakers and gather to themselves.
We see this. AT&T ruled until 1982. The first attempt to break up AT&T was 69 years earlier. IBM went through a 12-year antitrust hell, 1970 to 1982, and every year outspent the entire Department of Justice Antitrust Division on outside counsel. They called it antitrust's Vietnam. Allowing a monopoly to form is allowing a concentration of power to occur, that if in hindsight you decide is dangerous, is very, very hard to diffuse again, because the monopolies become too big to fail and too big to jail.
Brooke: We're talking about monopolies, but let's pivot to monopsonies because, if a single dominant seller is a monopoly, a single dominant buyer is just as powerful when it comes to screwing up a genuinely free market.
Cory: That's right.
Brooke: That brings another platform into the discussion, Spotify. You have this orgy of mergers and acquisitions. You have three big record labels, Sony, Warner, and Universal. In the late aughts, when Spotify was trying to get off the ground, especially in the US, it made a deal with the big three.
Cory: Yes. Spotify goes to Sony, Warner, Universal, 70% of all the sound recordings in their portfolios, which they didn't invest in, they bought from other companies when they bought those companies and mergers. That would have been illegal before Ronald Reagan. They say to these three companies, "What's it going to take to get your music on our service?" The three companies say, "We're going to be your business partners. We're going to take a big equity stake. You're going to love that because we want those royalty rates to be as low as possible, a fraction of a penny per track."
These big three record labels, once they're co-owners of Spotify, can take money out of Spotify as licensors, and that money has to be shared with the labor force who made the music, or they can take it out of shareholders. That money, they don't have to give it to the workforce if they don't want to, the musicians who made the works. The more they charge for the music you listen to on Spotify, the less their shares are worth.
Brooke: You're describing record companies making money at the expense of their own artists by joining Spotify and keeping the price of access to music unreasonably low.
Cory: They also insisted that no one else get paid more than them. For the 30% of independents and small labels, they got the same low per-stream rate. They didn't get free inclusion in playlists, they didn't get free advertising. They didn't get minimum monthlies, and they certainly didn't get shares that were suddenly worth billions of dollars at Spotify's IPO.
Brooke: The big three, they got all of that.
Cory: Again, remember, historic antitrust contours prohibited manufacturers from offering preferential terms to a single retailer.
Brooke: Now, these enormous record companies could take a parcel of their huge profits and award them to particular musicians, which reminds me of a theory you love called the giant teddy bear theory.
Cory: I grew up going to a great little carny in Toronto called the Canadian National Exhibitions, the CNE. By 10:00 AM, there'd be someone walking around with a giant teddy bear that they won by throwing three balls in a peach basket. As hard as you tried, you could never match the feat. How did they get this giant teddy bear, and why? Basically, the carny made sure they won.
The first person who came along and looked like a likely mark, they'd say, "Tell you what, sir, I like your face. You get just one ball in the basket. I'll give you a key chain. If you do it again, I'll let you trade two key chains for the giant teddy bear." The point was, that if you carry that giant teddy bear around all day, other people are going to go, "Hey, I can get a giant teddy bear too." This guy is lugging around this conspicuous teddy bear doing the marketing for the rigged game.
Where you see Joe Rogan getting $100 million for his podcast, or where you see TikTokers who have these incredible success stories, or back when Kindle was getting off the ground, there were independent authors who went to Kindle and were reported these incredible findings. Substack, all of those early Substack writers who were guaranteed a minimum monthly were talking about how Substack was the future of journalism. Really, all that was happening is they were being the giant teddy bear.
Brooke: You say the big teddy bear theory plays out big on TikTok.
Cory: Even TikTok's critics admit, that it's pretty good at guessing what you want. That's why most people who use TikTok just tune into the recommendation feed. People find themselves going viral because so many people have tuned into this algorithmic feed. The assumption had been this is what America wanted to see right now, and so America saw.
Then a reporter from Forbes revealed the existence of something called the heating tool. It's just a knob that someone at TikTok twiddles to say, "We're going to stick this in front of a lot of people, even though the algorithm doesn't think they'll like it." This is a way of temporarily allocating a surplus, giving goodies to the kind of performer that they want to become dependent on TikTok.
Maybe they want sports bros. They find a few of these guys and they give them giant teddy bears. You're viral. 10 million views every video you post. Are you really going to make two different videos, one for YouTube and one for TikTok, especially when you're getting 10 times the traffic on TikTok? TikTok's got this idiosyncratic format. You really got to customize it for TikTok. It's not really practical to make it for Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. Maybe you'd become a TikTok-first performer. Then they can take it away from you.
If they decide they got enough sports bro content, and now they want to get astrology influencers, they can stop promoting, stop heating the sports bro content and start heating the astrologer content. Also, it's impossible to tell whether a performer or writer or creative worker on one of these platforms like Substack, who's getting a giant payout, whether they've been given a giant teddy bear, whether they even know.
In fact, and now we're getting into counter-twiddling, if you get aggressive enough in trying to figure out how they're determining whether or not your videos will be shown to your subscribers, if you start to pull apart their app to see if you can find the business rules, they will start to come after you for violating Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which broadly prohibits reverse-engineering, violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for tortious interference with contract, for a trademark violation, patent violation, copyright infringement. Again, this just boils down to felony contempt of business model.
Brooke: I don't know what that is.
Cory: That's just the idea that, even if Congress never passed a law saying, never displease a shareholder, that you can mobilize existing laws like copyright law to say that displeasing a shareholder becomes illegal. Let's talk about iPhones just for a second. I make an app for an iPhone. You own an iPhone. You spend $1,000 on that iPhone. I made the app, and I hold the copyright to it.
I don't want to share 30% of all my revenue with Apple, and you don't think I should have to, so I give you the app and a tool that allows you to install it on your iPhone, which belongs to you. I, the copyright owner, by letting you use my copyrighted work, violate copyright law.
Brooke: It's amazing that people who talk about the free market lock it up so tight that it can't be responsive to the consumers that are supposed to operate it.
Cory: Oh, it's even worse because it's not just that Apple, like all capitalists, hates capitalism when they're on the pointy end of it, it's that Apple did the thing that they would now sue you for to other companies. If you think about when Microsoft Windows reigned supreme in the Office and Macs were getting harder and harder to use because Word for the Mac or Office for the Mac was so bad?
The way Steve Jobs resolved that was by having some of his technologists reverse-engineer Microsoft Office and make iWork that read and write Microsoft Office's files. When Apple did it, that was progress. When you or I do it, that is theft.
Brooke: The FTC has lawsuits against Facebook, and the Department of Justice has an antitrust case against Google where twiddling resulted in undetectable fraud. Is there some accountability afoot?
Cory: Let's go back to the best time to fight monopolies was 40 years ago and the second best time is now. I think the world of the antitrust enforcers in the Biden administration, Lina Khan, is extraordinary.
Brooke: The head of the Federal Trade Commission.
Cory: That's right. She was a third-year Yale Law student just a couple of years ago, and she wrote this paper that was a direct answer to Robert Bork. Bork's book was called The Antitrust Paradox. Her law review paper was called Amazon's Antitrust Paradox. It was such a stinging rebuttal to Bork that it set the whole antitrust theoretical world on its ear.
Just a few years later, she is the youngest-ever chair of the Federal Trade Commission. She found things like Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act, which wasn't that hard to find. It's right between Section 4 and Section 6 but hasn't been used in 40 years. It's the article that gives the Federal Trade Commission broad latitude to act against deceptive and unfair practices.
That's the basis on which she promulgated a rule banning non-compete agreements. We are seeing in Khan what a skilled technocrat can do. If you know where the levers are, and you're not afraid to pull the levers, you can make incredible things happen. We are in an incredible moment for antitrust where every department is now being asked to use its legislative authority to go ahead and act to reduce monopoly and monopoly power across the entire economy.
Brooke: Coming up, Cory and I finish our conversation with some talk about solutions. This is On the Media. This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone with the final part of my discussion with the great Cory Doctorow about the process whereby big platforms go bad. In this section, sometimes I'll be talking to Cory, sometimes to you to make it more concise because this is the solution section both uplifting and deeply problematic.
The problem, for instance, of passing common-sense regulation, which is hobbled by confusion over how the internet works, confusion abetted by platform designers and also by the fact that those designers are rich, and thus, effective lobbyists.
Cory: It's not that they're rich, it's that they're rich and united.
Brooke: A crucial distinction one only has to look back on the early days of this century.
Cory: Tech at the time was like 150 squabbling small and medium-sized companies that all hated each other's guts and were fighting like crazy. Lawmakers heard contradictory messages from tech. The consolidation of tech, that produced a common playbook. Now, we get a lot of tech laws that are very bad, that tech has pushed for because tech is able to sing with one voice.
Brooke: Congress offers bad solutions because they don't get the internet.
Male Speaker: The internet is not something that you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes.
Cory: You don't have to get the technology in-depth to be able to make good policy. The last time I checked, there weren't any microbiologists in Congress, and yet we're not all dead from drinking our tap water. What you need to be able to do is hold a hearing in which the truth emerges from a truth-seeking exercise where adversarial entities counter one another's claims and an expert regulator who isn't captured by industry is able to evaluate those claims. That's how you get good rules.
Brooke: Instead, we end up with regulations that are simply unworkable?
Cory: Since the 1990s, every couple of years, like a bad penny, someone proposes that we should make cryptography that works when criminals and foreign spies and stalkers are trying to break into it but doesn't work when police officers are trying to break into it.
Brooke: I'm not an expert. It sounds to me like, if you're going to try and create an encryption system that will protect you from crooks but not from each other, you're not going to get an encryption system.
Cory: Nailed it right there on the head in one. We have a name for what lawmakers do when we point this out, they say, "Nerd harder. We have so much confidence in your incredible genius as a sector. Surely, all you need to do is apply yourself." Sometimes they're right. Sometimes there's a dazzling act that goes on from tech where they say, "This is impossible," and what they mean is, we'd rather not do it. That would be things like, can you have a search engine that doesn't spy on you? They're like, "That's like having water that's not wet."
Brooke: Which brings us to the first of Doctorow's three prime solutions to en***fication, fixing the problem of user privacy. Platform designers say their services can't run without using our data. They rarely say how or why. Why not begin the fix by returning to a form of advertising we had two decades ago, ads based on context rather than behavior.
Cory: Let's start with how a behavioral ad works. You land on a web page, and there's a process where the web page, the publisher takes all the information they have about you that they've gathered through this ad tech surveillance system.
Brooke: Which includes what?
Cory: Everything you've bought, everywhere you've gone, everything you've looked at, all the people you know, your age, your address, everything. They say, "I have here one Brooke Gladstone, NPR host and proud New Yorker who last week was thinking about buying an air conditioner for her apartment." They say, "What are my bid for this Brooke Gladstone?"
That goes off to one of these ad tech platforms. The ad tech platform asks the advertisers, and they say, "Who among you will pay me for Brooke Gladstone?" There's a little auction that takes place. If you've ever noticed that the page lags when you're loading it? That's the surveillance lag, right? That's the auctions, dozens of them, taking place at once.
Brooke: What? How do I not know this?
Cory: Yes, it's terrible, right? Bandwidth gets faster, pages get slower, and it's the surveillance lag that's doing it, all this busy marketplace stuff happening in the background.
Brooke: Even if an ad company fails to win your behavioral ad auction, the process still gives them a lot of insight into your behavior. Whereas with context ads, they mostly have access to what's relevant and obvious.
Cory: You are reading an article about the great outdoors, and they look at your IP address and they go, "This is someone in New York." They say that you're using an iPhone. It's someone who has $1,000 to buy a phone, and they say to the marketplace, "Who wants to advertise to someone in New York who's reading about the great outdoors?" The same thing happens, and you get an ad, but the ad is not about you. It's about what you're reading.
Brooke: Not your Google searches or your health concerns or what's in your email address book.
Cory: If Congress says we're going to pass a comprehensive privacy law, the industry would have to respond with context ads.
Brooke: That's one potential privacy fix, but we need more than that. The legislative focus seems to be on children's privacy. Do we have a model in the Child Online Protection Act?
Cory: We could if we ever bothered to enforce it. COPPA says that you can't gather data on people who are under 13. If you recall, when poor Shou Chew, the CEO of TikTok, was being grilled by Congress, there was a congressman from Georgia who was just weirdly horny for whether or not pupils were being measured.
Congressman: Can you say with 100% certainty that TikTok does not use the phone's camera to determine whether the content that elicits a pupil dilation should be amplified by the algorithm? Can you tell me that?
Shou Zi Chew: We do not collect body, face, or voice data to identify our users. The only face data that you will get that we collect is when you use the filters to have, say, sunglasses on your face. We need to know where your eyes are.
Congressman: Why do you need to know where the eyes are if you're not seeing if they're dilated?
Shou Zi Chew: That data is stored on your local device and deleted after use if you use it for facial. Again, we do not collect body, face, or voice data to identify our users.
Congressman: I find that hard to believe. It's our understanding that they're looking at the eyes. How do you determine what age they are, then?
Shou Zi Chew: We rely on age gating as our key age assurance.
Shou Zi Chew: Gating. Which is when you ask the user what age they are. We have also developed some tools where we look at their public profile to go through the videos that they post to see whether--
Congressman: Well, that's creepy. Tell me more about that.
Shou Zi Chew: It's public.
Cory: He's just baffled. Rather than the congressman from Georgia saying, "Wait, this is what everybody does? That's terrible." He says, "We're not here to talk about your American competitors. We are here to talk about what you're doing for Xi Jinping." You know what? They're all doing that.
Brooke: The Child Protection Act doesn't really do anything?
Cory: Does it? I mean, can anyone with a straight face look at Congress' legislative intent in passing a rule? On the one hand, they pretty definitely don't mean measure people's pupils and do some digital phrenology to figure out if they're over 13. On the other hand, they didn't mean give everyone a box that says, "I'm over 13." I mean, there's another way of thinking about this, which is to say, "Don't spy on anyone in case they might be under 13."
Brooke: That's how Congress is reaching back for some old-school antitrust-style legislation.
Cory: Mike Lee has got a bill right now that both Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz has sponsored, and it says that, at a minimum, the ad tech business should be broken up so that you can be a company that provides a marketplace where people buy and sell ads, or you can be a company that represents publishers in that marketplace, or you can be a company that represents advertisers in that marketplace. You cannot in the mode of Google and Meta be a company that is the marketplace that represents the buyers, and represents the sellers.
Somehow, even though you claim that this is a very clean arrangement, the share of money going to publishers keeps going down. The cost to advertisers keeps going up and your margins keep increasing. We could say that you can have a platform, or you can use the platform.
Brooke: Platforms claim that reigning in privacy would break the internet. They say the same thing about taking step two when Dr. Rose program to pull big media from the dong heap. Step two is interoperability.
Cory: When you buy a pair of shoes, you can wear anyone's socks with them. In theory, when you buy an iPhone, you could run anyone's software on it. There is this latent computer science bedrock idea that is very important, but esoteric, I apologize in advance, called Turing completeness, named for Alan Turing, the great Hero of Computer Science. Turing completeness, it says that the only computer we know how to make is the one that can run all the programs we know how to write.
You could hypothetically write a program that would allow you to install a different operating system on your iPhone, or a different app store on your iPhone. The real thing that prevents it is that, if you tried it, apple would destroy you with lawsuits. They'll drum up a thousand excuses that today we call IP, which colloquially just means anything that allows me to control the conduct of my competitors, my critics, or my customers.
Brooke: Like inducing confusion by turning knobs, by--
Cory: Twiddling. Twiddling is the ability to change the business rules very quickly. There are no real policy constraints on twiddling.
Brooke: Cory says, "Three factors gave rise to the new world of big digital and made en-bleep-fication inevitable."
Cory: The first is no competition. For 40 years, we let these companies buy their competitors. We let them do predatory pricing. We let them violate the antitrust law that was on the books because Ronald Reagan said that we shouldn't enforce it the way it was written. All of his successors, until Biden said, "That sounds like a good idea to me too." On the one hand, there's just nowhere else to go.
Then you have digital is different. The platforms can play this high speed shell game because there's no rules on how they can change the rules. There's no rules on how they can alter your experience or harvest your data or do other things that are bad for you.
Then finally, we can't use the intrinsic property of computers, this universality, this Turing completeness to step in where Congress has failed and put limits on their twiddling ourselves by changing the technology so it's twiddle resistant, so that when they try to spy on us, our computer says, "I'm sorry. No, I belong to Brooke not Mark Zuckerberg." Even though you've requested that private data, I am not going to furnish you with it.
Brooke: No competition and unbridled twiddling are the first two factors kettling users. The third taps into feelings many of you have had. You can't stay, but you can't go because, if you do, you leave your community behind, your history. You can't take it with you.
Cory: There's no right to exit. Facebook gives you this Sophie's Choice where either you go and you do what's best for Brooke, the individual, or you do what's best for Brooke, the member of a community. If you leave, you leave the community behind. Now, we could just make this a rule. We could say, if you have some user's data and the user asks for the data, you got to give them the data.
Then we could say to a company like Twitter that is just cruising for a bruising from consumer protection agencies and is probably going to be operating under a new consent decree, "Hey, your consent decree, now that you've abused your users, is you've got to support this standard so that users can leave, but continue to send messages to Twitter," and they can take their followers with them if they leave, and they can take their followees.
Brooke: To recap, to reverse the degradation of our online experience, we rest some control of our privacy by insisting on ads that collect only context rather than every known morsel of information about our earthly lives, then sue for interoperability. The right to use what we own from books' detractors and slap away the seller's cold dead hand. Finally, we lay claim to our right to exit. The simple idea that signing out of social programs should be as easy as signing up.
All these would take lots of public pressure, but all are possible. In fact, they were normal parts of our online experience, all of them, before being thrown on the dung heap with mission statements vowing to give people the power to build community, protect the user's voice and not be evil. Big digital's current mission statement should be, it gets worse before it gets worse. I wonder, has anyone ever stopped the process in its tracks? Have users ever rebelled before a platform or a service went south?
Cory: Well, I've got some good news for you Brooke, which is that podcasting has thus far been very en****ficationresistant.
Cory: Yes, it's pretty cool. Podcasting is built on RSS.
Brooke: I know that. It stands for Really Simple Syndication, that lets pretty much anyone upload content to the internet that can be downloaded by anyone else. In turn, podcasts are extremely hard to centralize.
Cory: Which isn't to say that people aren't trying.
Brooke: Like Apple.
Cory: Oh my goodness, do they ever? YouTube. Spotify gave Joe Rogan $100 million to lock his podcast inside their app. The thing about that is that, once you control the app that the podcast is in, you can do all kinds of things to the user. You can spy on them. You can stop them from skipping ads. The BBC for a couple of decades has been caught in this existential fight over whether it's going to remain publicly funded through the license fee, or whether it's going to have to become privatized.
It does have this private arm that Americans are very familiar with, BBC worldwide, and BBC America, which basically figure out how to extract cash from Americans to help subsidize the business of providing education, information, and entertainment to the British public.
Brooke: The BBC created a podcast app called BBC Sounds.
Cory: That's right. One of my favorite BBC shows of all time is the News Quiz.
Show Host: Welcome to the News Quiz. It's been a week in which the culture sector is suggesting the BBC needs to look at new sources of funding, so all of this week's panelists will be for sale on eBay after the show.
Cory: You can listen to it as a podcast on a four-week delay. You can hear comedians making jokes about the news of the week a month ago, or you can get it on BBC Sounds. From what I'm told by my contacts at the B, people aren't rushing to listen to BBC Sounds. Instead, they're going, "You know, there is so much podcast material available more than I could ever listen to. I'll just find something else." That's what happened with Spotify too.
Brooke: Spotify paid big bucks to buy out production houses and big creators like Alex Cooper and Joe Rogan in an attempt to build digital walls around their conquests popular shows just to see their hard one audiences say, "I'll pass."
Cory: Now, Spotify is making all those pronouncements. We are going to, on a select basis, move some podcasts outside for this reason and that, and basically, what's happening is they're just trying to save face as they gradually just put all the podcasts back where they belong on the internet instead of inside their walled garden.
Brooke: Maybe it's because there's so much content or because, like the news business, people are used to getting it for free. Podcasting seems resistant even though no medium is safe from what Doctorow is describing, and en-bleep-ification sits at the intersection of some of our country's most powerful players, entrenched values, and the consumer's true wants and needs.
Cory: I have hope, which is much better than optimism. Hope is the belief that, if we materially alter our circumstance even in some small way, that we might ascend to a new vantage point from which we can see some new course of action that was not visible to us before we took that last step. I'm a novelist and an activist, and I can tell the difference between plotting a novel and running an activist campaign.
In a novel there's a very neat path from A to Z. In the real world, it's messy. In the real world, you can have this rule of thumb that says, "Wherever you find yourself, see if you can make things better, and then see, if from there, we can stage another climb up the slope towards the world that we want."
I got a lot of hope pinned on the Digital Markets Act. I got a lot of hope pinned on Lina Khan and the Federal Trade Commission's Antitrust Actions, and the Department of Justice Antitrust actions. The Digital Markets Act, and the European Union, the Chinese Cyberspace Act, the Competition and Markets Authority in the UK stopping Microsoft from doing its rotten acquisition of Activision.
Cory: I got a lot of hope for people who are fed up to the back teeth with people like Elon Musk, and all these other self-described geniuses, and telling them all to just go to hell. I got a lot of hope.
Brooke: Thank you for taking me on this journey with you. I am inspired. [laughs]
Cory: Thank you for coming on it.
Brooke: Journalist, activist, novelist, Cory Doctorow. His most recent novel is Red Team Blues.
Brooke: That is our show. On the Media is produced by Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Molly Schwartz, Rebecca Clark-Callender, Candice Wang, and Suzanne Gaber. Our technical director's Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Nerviano. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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