Friedman: We’re connected online, but no one’s in charge to stop abuses

There is an abiding dream in the tech world that when all the planet’s people and data are connected it will be a better place. That may prove true. But getting there is turning into a nightmare — a world where billions of people are connected but without sufficient legal structures, security protections or moral muscles to handle all these connections without abuse.

Lately, it feels as if we’re all connected but no one’s in charge.

Equifax, the credit reporting bureau, became brilliant at vacuuming up personal credit data — without your permission — and selling it. But it was so lax that it left a hole for hackers to get the personal information of some 146 million Americans, or nearly half the country.

But don’t worry, Equifax ousted CEO Richard Smith, with “a payday worth as much as $90 million — or roughly 63 cents for every customer whose data was potentially exposed in its recent security breach,” Fortune reported. That will teach him!

Smith and his board should be in jail. I’m with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who told CNBC, “So long as there is no personal responsibility when these big companies breach consumers’ trust, let their data get stolen, cheat their consumers … then nothing is going to change.”

Facebook, Google and Twitter are different animals in my mind. They’ve all connected more people than they can manage and they’ve been naive about how many bad guys were abusing their platforms.

As Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, put it to me, “Up to now, these companies have not taken the threat that Russia and other foreign agents pose to our system seriously enough or invested enough or to really reveal what happened in 2016 — or what is still happening now.”

One reason Facebook was slow to respond is that its business model was to absorb all of the readers of the mainstream media and to absorb all their advertisers — but as few of their editors as possible. An editor is a human being you have to pay to bring editorial judgment to your content, to make sure things are accurate and to correct them if they’re not. Social networks preferred to use algorithms instead, but these are easily gamed.

Our democracy is built on two principles: truth and trust. We trust that our elections are fair and that enables our peaceful rotations of power. And we trust that the news we get is true and that it is corrected if it is not. And we expect our president to defend both. But our president is a liar who refuses to hold Russia to account for anything. It’s a terrible combination.

These companies make billions selling our data, but they’re ambivalent about taking responsibility “for the uses, and abuses, of their platforms,” argued Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. “They can’t have it both ways. If they claim they are neutral pipes and wires, like the phone company or the electric company, they should be regulated as public utilities. But if, on the other hand, they want to claim the freedoms associated with news media, they can’t deny responsibility for promulgating fake news.”

“These platforms are so dominant that, like electric wires or telephone lines, we can scarcely avoid using them. But when they allow our personal data — or elections — to be hacked,” Sandel said, “there’s not much we can do about it.”

“A century ago, we found ways to rein in the unaccountable power associated with the Industrial Revolution,” Sandel concluded. “Today, we need to figure out how to rein in the unaccountable power associated with the digital revolution.”

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Opinion

Opinion: Inhumanity rules the border

Put yourself in the room with immigration officials and try to imagine exactly which argument would convince you that separating children from their migrating parents would be a good idea. Would it work for you because you’re a stickler for obedience to rules — no exceptions? Would it be OK because the U.S. must convey to others that illegal...
Commentary: A job market this tight should deliver bigger raises

With the economy strong and unemployment low, why is wage growth so sluggish? Lots of economists and pundits are debating this vexing question. When the labor market gets tight, wages are supposed to rise faster. Instead, median wage growth is slower than it was back in 2016. The most benign explanation is that there’s no mystery here &mdash...
Commentary: Trump economy doing fine, to chagrin of the dismal science
Commentary: Trump economy doing fine, to chagrin of the dismal science

They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing. Remember Paul Krugman predicting the apocalypse in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. And now with the economy clipping along at nearly 3 percent, deregulation and lower taxes reviving manufacturing, and consumers confidently spending again, some two-thirds of private-sector prognosticators...
Editorial: Erecting early cyber-defenses key to protecting the vote
Editorial: Erecting early cyber-defenses key to protecting the vote

Thank goodness Palm Beach County elections officials haven’t waited for the state of Florida for help in hardening our voting system from cyberattacks. First, the Legislature failed to approve money for a cyber-security unit in the state elections office, so Gov. Rick Scott is resorting to a federal grant to contract for five consultants...
Letters Post readers express outrage over family separations at border
Letters Post readers express outrage over family separations at border

Judging by our letters to the editor, Palm Beach Post readers are outraged over the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” enforcement at the U.S. southern border resulting in migrant children being separated from their parents. We are receiving many letters denouncing the policy, and none defending it. Here is a sampling. More can...
More Stories