I’m an optimist by nature. I instinctively look for the bright spot, silver lining, hopeful sign, even during the darkest of times.
This instinctive search has been increasingly hard to carry out in the last two weeks. But I managed to find one last Sunday night: the daughter of a Japanese host family I stayed with for one summer during college messaged me on Instagram and asked me in broken English if I’m doing ok, because she saw on TV that “America is being destroyed and burned down”. She never talked to me when I was living with her family 14 years ago. We somehow managed to be connected on Instagram, but never said a word to each other -- until last Sunday.
This tiny bright spot happened, of course, in the backdrop of a confluent of interconnected major events:
- protests against systemic racism across America
- criticisms from civil rights leaders, Facebook employees, and many other people against Mark Zuckerberg for not “fact-checking” Trump’s post like Jack Dorsey did
- Trump’s new executive order challenging the legal protection (Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act) that have allowed social media in America to become what they are today.
Yet my tiny bright spot could have only happened if Facebook and Instagram grew the way they grew.
Is Facebook the problem? Is Mark Zuckerberg the sole culprit?
Or is there a deeper issue: the algorithm that decides who should see what is beyond any control or accountability and has no legitimacy to that power.
No Due Process In An Algorithmic World
The debate about social networks tends to center on high-minded discussions about freedom of speech and censorship. The current one with regard to Trump’s vile “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” post is yet another example. What’s missing is a constructive discussion about the role that Due Process should play in technology products, especially algorithmically driven ones.
The most thoughtful take I’ve seen on the intersection of Due Process and technology is when two years ago Matthew Prince, the CEO of Cloudflare, explained his decision to terminate service for the right-wing website, the Daily Stormer. As a former lawyer, Prince drew an important distinction between freedom of speech and Due Process:
“The issue of who can and cannot be online has often been associated with Freedom of Speech. We think the more important principle is Due Process. I, personally, believe in strong Freedom of Speech protections, but I also acknowledge that it is a very American idea that is not shared globally. On the other hand, the concept of Due Process is close to universal. At its most basic, Due Process means that you should be able to know the rules a system will follow if you participate in that system.
Due Process requires that decisions be public and not arbitrary. It's why we've always said that our policy is to follow the guidance of the law in the jurisdictions in which we operate. Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted. Companies should not.” [Bold emphasis mine]
The reason Prince pulled the plug on the Daily Stormer was because it falsely claimed that Cloudflare, by providing services to the website as a vendor, was a supporter of its ideology. Prince did not “cancel” the Daily Stormer, because he didn’t like what was on the website. He felt the need to explain his decision, because it might set a dangerous precedence. He did not want to be the arbiter of who gets to be online, much in the same way that Zuckerberg does not want to be the “arbiter of truth”.
I think Prince’s perspective that Due Process is more universal than Freedom of Speech is the correct lens. And to make Due Process work, it requires that decisions be public and not arbitrary.
The algorithms that decide which tweet appears in my feed or which YouTube video I should watch next is anything but “public and not arbitrary.” In fact, they are the carefully-guarded secret sauce that’s supposed to fuel user growth and engagement, which in turn drives more advertisers and higher ad rates.
An algorithm is a decision making process. If an algorithm has no Due Process, its decisions have no legitimacy.
You can apply the same framework to the CEOs of any of these social media companies.
People are mad at Zuckerberg because they don’t agree with his decision to not remove Trump’s post, but there’s no Due Process that confers Zuckerberg any legitimacy to decide.
People are applauding Jack Dorsey’s decision to flag the same post on Twitter, because it aligned with their opinion about Trump, but there’s no Due Process that confers Dorsey that legitimacy either.
Had the decision been reversed: Zuckerberg removed Trump's post while Dorsey left it unflagged, the decisions would’ve been equally lacking in Due Process power. Had the decision been about another politician saying some other incendiary things, it would be no different.
While we aim our anger, frustration, and blame at these CEOs, the algorithms that fuel their social networks -- imbued with the features engineered by human beings with their own intentions, emotions, and biases -- have become far more powerful and well beyond their control. But these algorithms are faceless, opaque, and harder to reason about, thus harder for us to blame.
A Social Network with Due Process
There has been a chorus of investors publicly shaming Zuckerberg and looking to fund a Facebook alternative. I don’t think another VC-backed social network startup will solve the lack of algorithmic Due Process problem.
If a social network startup (or any startup) takes VC investment, it’s expected to eventually generate hypergrowth and outsized financial returns. That is the nature of the economics of venture capital, and the sole professional purpose of these investors. For a new social network to grow quickly to meet this expectation, a highly efficient algorithm engineered solely for the purpose of user engagement morphed into ad dollars is still the best playbook.
Look no further than the newest and hottest entrant into the global social media space: Bytedance, in the form of TikTok. To be far, Bytedance has been hot in China since 2013 when its first news aggregator app, Jinri Toutiao (meaning: Today’s Headlines), took off but western tech media largely ignored it. Its second big hit, Douyin, was launched in 2016 and is the direct precursor to TikTok after the company bought Musical.ly. Whether it's news headlines or short videos of Gen Z’s lip-syncing, Bytedance’s apps are all powered by opaque AI algorithms. This playbook generated $3 billion USD in profit last year on $17 billion of revenue, mostly from ads.
To be a real alternative to Facebook at the core, the social network’s algorithm has to be public and not arbitrary, transparent and not faceless. It has to have Due Process.
Ironically or perhaps appropriately, the only effort of any scale that resembles this alternative is Libra. (Social networks like Minds are still very small.) The Libra project has met with waves of challenges and detraction since its launch. But judging from the measuring stick of Due Process, its codebase was open-sourced from day one, it’s built on the blockchain which is by definition an open protocol, and it’s governed by an association of organizations, reducing the possibility of arbitrary decision making by Facebook the company or Zuckerberg the person.
To be clear, Libra is still more of a fledgling concept than a production-ready application. It’s also a payment system, not a social network. It’s too early to say whether Libra has algorithmic Due Process and the legitimacy that that confers. But if Zuckerberg’s privacy-focused vision for a social network were to succeed -- a place where a lost acquaintance of 14 years can find me without being lab rats of an algorithmic ad machine -- Libra along with Whatsapp will undoubtedly be critical pieces to that future.
The engineering and technical challenges to implementing that vision will be immense and take years. Thankfully Zuckerberg has more money and patience than all the VCs combined. Unfortunately, our world may not have enough time for him or another entrepreneur to figure all this out before we destroy ourselves. But I’m still an optimist.
I know this analysis may upset a lot of people. It’s even more upsetting for me to write it, as someone who’s spent most of his 20s working for Barack Obama and cannot stand Donald Trump sitting in the White House. But for any analysis to be useful, it must be dispassionate. My feeling is irrelevant to this post, in the same way that Matthew Prince’s feeling is irrelevant to who should be online, and that Mark Zuckerberg’s feeling is irrelevant to what you can see on Facebook.
Chinese Version Below
- 美国民权领袖、Facebook员工以及许多民众都批评扎克伯格没有像Jack Dorsey那样“核实”特朗普的帖子
- 特朗普的新行政命令挑战保护社交媒体的法律条款（Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act)
在“正当程序”和科技技术的交叉点上，我看到的最深思熟虑的一篇思考是两年前，Cloudflare 的首席执行官 Matthew Prince 解释了他终止对右翼网站《每日风暴报》（Daily Stormer）的服务的决定。作为前律师，Prince对言论自由和正当程序作了重要区分：