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Credit unions for online content – Alternatives to social media platform oligopoly that go beyond the false choice of dictatorship versus chaos

Marc Smith

Content management on social media platforms is a complex issue.  We are often confronted with the false choice that content on social media platforms should be either centrally controlled based on the values of their owners or they should be anarchic and completely unregulated.

An alternative model could be built around the ways credit unions operate in the interest of their members. Data credit unions would host content with the goal of growing “interest” in that data. “Public interest” internet data services could be implemented with straight forward legislation and limited costs. A different model of ownership can lead to a different model of content curation and moderation. Cooperative data services could ensure that accountable, high quality content is available on a wide range of critical topics.

Regulation of content is often seen as a violation of the cultural value of free expression. In this view, anyone should be able to say anything to anyone. This maximalist view of freedom and speech ignores the freedom to not hear speech that is unwanted or not valued. Since different groups of people value different kinds of information, the information preferences of platform owners cannot make all groups happy. No matter how they are chosen, content choices must always be made as machines sort and sift through volumes of information too large for a human. Today, social media platforms operate entirely as for profit entities, and they have no legal obligation to operate in the public interest.

Profit only platforms seek to maximize the revenue they capture, not the quality of information they cultivate. If we want there to be more than a “vast wasteland” of information on the Internet, we will need to find new ways to organize and own these platforms. Non-profit, cooperative data platforms, chartered in the public interest could ensure that an alternative digital spaces dedicated to quality, accountability, and public service is possible.

Public interest requirements are a feature of the ways radio and television are regulated. Regulation of the airwaves is based on the concept of scarcity – there is a limited amount of electromagnetic spectrum and a central authority is needed to impose order.  Broadcasters must stay within limits of frequency, power and location to have legal licensed access to the airwaves.  Scarcity of bandwidth and interference between broadcasters required coordination and regulation from governments. In the United States the public service mandate for broadcasters is a tradeoff for the protection the government provides.

The internet, and cable tv before it, offered an escape from this scarcity – many more channels became available on cable and the web enabled a proliferation of billions of webpages.  The absence of the scarcity and interference arguments meant that Internet companies operate with no public service requirement or licensing.

But scarcity in the case of social media does exist, it is the limit of human attention available in a society.  People can only read and scroll past a limited number of items a day.  This scarcity motivates the need for governments to promote the creation of higher quality content since the market cannot ensure its creation.

Interference in the online social media case is the insertion of content into media streams that is created to disrupt and destabilize on-going discussions.  The ability to implement an information “membrane” is required to keep some information out while pulling other information into discussion spaces.

Organizations that want to operate social media platforms could choose to operate under a public service option.  Like a credit union for banking services, these organizations could seek a charter from the government to operate social media services in the public interest.  In exchange, they could get preferential tax treatment, get access to discounted telecommunication and computing services, and retain protection for liability for hosted content.  These organizations would then be required to manage their content in ways that allow for accountability and mitigation of low quality information. An appeals process could ensure that quality information when challenged is retained and low quality information can be pushed out of the platforms dedicated to ensuring information quality.

Many civil society organizations may find it attractive to operate these platforms. And technology businesses would emerge to help host these chartered discussion spaces. Medical professionals, academics, financial professional associations might seize the opportunity to host and maintain data archives and discussions that use the best available research.

Disputed or challenged content can then be subject to an adjudication and appeals process that would weigh heavily the use of peer reviewed and well documented and sourced materials over novelty and hearsay.

A “public bit service” or “national public retweet” could be the counter weight to a market only solution that has shown to be unable to ensure high quality information is cultivated.

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