By Anat Peled
On Tuesday, the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) and the Stanford Cyber Initiative hosted a discussion on the governmental consequences of technological developments with two CASBS fellows, Stanford Law Professor Nate Persily and Carrie Cihak, Chief of Policy in King County, Washington.
A recurring theme throughout the lecture was the difficulty of regulating increasingly powerful technology companies like Facebook and Google at both the local and international level.
Pesily focused on the international side of that regulation.
“Social media companies are seen as exporters of American culture as well as [of] our particular view of speech,” he said, emphasizing the importance of this phenomenon in the context of competition between America, Europe and China to control the future of the internet.
According to Persily, each region and country has a different model for how the internet should be structured. The U.S, for instance, represents one end of the spectrum in terms of government regulation and free speech.
“There is no other country in the world that’s comparable to the United States in our libertarianism when it comes to speech,” Persily explained.
Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia and a leader of Estonian digitization initiatives, shared his views on free speech and the European model internet norms.
“In Europe, the real issue is data protection and the massive use of data, and this is something that hasn’t been discussed here at all,” Ilves said. “That is where the regulation is going to hit [technology companies] and [hit] their economic model.”
Persily also brought up the subject of the growing power of the corporate technology giants. According to him, these companies do not function democratically.
For example, because Facebook did not give every user a share of investment when it went public, Persily labeled the company as “effectively a monarchy.”
However, he also acknowledged that there are ways to curb social media giants.
“[The] scandal with Cambridge Analytica cost [Facebook] $50 billion in the space of three weeks,” he said. “So there are checks on them.”
Cihak talked extensively about local government’s regulatory role in the “platform economy,” which refers to the social and economic activity facilitated by digital platforms such as Uber and Airbnb.
According to Cihak, people are willing to participate in the platform economy — for instance, by renting out their home or riding cars with complete strangers — because they have the expectation that the service will be safe and that, behind it all, there is a system looking out for them as consumers.
She added that much of this trust is based on government regulation, but that such regulation is being challenged by the speed of the platform economy.
Cihak also discussed the ways in which technology can exacerbate existing inequalities in physical communities.
“Tech is only going to become that great equalizer if we actually equalize access to technology,” she said. “And in the United States and in many of our communities, we’re not doing such a hot job with that.”
In her home state of Washington, which has the highest in-home broadband adoption rate in the country, Cihak said that one in five households still lack broadband access.
She also said that this inequality is unequally distributed. Low-income households — which are also disproportionately households of color — are five times less likely to have broadband access at home.
When asked about how Stanford students can engage more deeply with issues related to technology and governance, Persily highlighted the importance of thinking about the intersection between law, technology and ethics. In an interview with The Daily, he stressed the need for technology-oriented students to think about complex issues concerning law and ethics.
However, Persily added that many students who study STEM-related subjects feel that they are not at Stanford to think about the ethics of technology.
Persily recommended that those students consider taking classes that engage with those issues directly, such as a new course on ethics co-taught by Rob Reich and Mehran Sahami, or get involved with initiatives like his new research project that focuses on data sharing and privacy.
Contact Anat Peled at anatpel ‘at’ stanford.edu