Amid Rising Alarms About Big Tech, What Is Philanthropy's Role?

 photo: achinthamb/shutterstock

photo: achinthamb/shutterstock

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on April 23, 2018. 

Last fall, we talked to Barry Lynn, director of Open Markets, about what role philanthropy could play in countering the growing—and increasingly ominous—power of Big Tech. Lynn and his team had recently been forced out of the New America Foundation, reportedly for ticking off Alphabet's Eric Schmidt, a donor to the think tank, for cheering the massive anti-trust fine that the EU had levied on Google. (NAF denies this account.) 

Lynn told us that the growing dominance of Silicon Valley firms is “unlike any set of threats that we have ever had to face as a society.” He said he hoped that more foundations and philanthropists would pay closer attention to this danger, backing new anti-monopoly work. 

Related: What Is Philanthropy Doing to Challenge the Power of Tech Giants? What Can It Do?

Six months later, in the wake of alarming revelations about Facebook, funders definitely are paying more attention to the dangers posed by tech (along with the Congress). But are they on the right path? 

This is tough terrain for philanthropy. Firms like Facebook and Google are powerful private corporations working in a field that’s extremely opaque and technical. Outsiders anxious to see change—whether policymakers, advocates or foundations—often find themselves struggling simply to understand the problem. Even tech's leaders themselves don't seem to how to control the Frankenstein they've created. 

To Barry Lynn and Open Markets, though, taming big tech isn't rocket science. Last month, for example, Lynn called on the Federal Trade Commission to "use its broad authority to restructure Facebook"—including by reversing its acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram, imposing much stricter privacy rules, and forcing it to spin off its lucrative ad network "to eliminate the incentive to amass data and to discriminate in the provision of news and information to Americans."

Open Markets has been backed by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and a handful of other funders. But it's often struggled to get backing from top grantmakers, who aren't yet ready to embrace its tough stance on tech companies. 

Instead, some leading funders are focused more narrowly right now—looking to get a better handle on the problems posed by tech in order to counter disinformation and safeguard a public square dominated by social media. 

That's the goal of a research initiative backed by a consortium of foundations that was announced earlier this month. Facebook has agreed to create and work with an independent research commission to examine the company’s role in elections and the democratic process. To do that, Facebook has agreed to furnish the researchers with the data they’ll need to answer various questions. In a news release, the company insists that “we believe strongly that the public interest is best served when independent researchers have access to information. And we believe that we can achieve this goal while ensuring that privacy is preserved and information kept secure.”

Given recent events, some might raise their eyebrows at such a statement from Facebook. But the project’s funders are hopeful. They include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, and the Omidyar Network.

On that list are funders who’ve supported work to strengthen democracy in the past, or even base their entire mission around that goal. Some of them also originate in the tech world, like Omidyar and Hewlett.

But an obvious question about this initiative is whether funders are taking the safe route in regard to Big Tech, instead of seizing the moment to get behind a bolder reform agenda. While advocates like Lynn see an opening for new regulations that are long overdue, the foundation world seems content (for the moment) merely to study the issue—a classic strategy to kick the can down the road. 

Another question, here, is whether Facebook is a trustworthy partner for the new research partnership that's getting underway. 

To answer the first question, it's important to stress that this initiative is narrowly focused on the role of social media in elections and democracy. It's not about the larger issues posed by the size and power of tech companies. Just because funders are very keen right now to make headway against disinformation, and have been since the election, it doesn't mean they won't eventually tackle other challenges related to Big Tech. What's more, the new research effort could lay the groundwork for a bolder push on the privacy issues at the heart of debates over tech's power. 

As to the second question, Hewlett Foundation president Larry Kramer—who told us earlier this year that he fears “the beginning of the end of American democracy” may be near—said in a press release, “We are not naïve, and we understand the risks in working closely with a for-profit company whose business and business model may be threatened by the results of the research.”

Kramer and the initiative’s other backers are going forward with the belief that “the protections that have been put in place, with Facebook’s support, adequately ensure both the importance of the questions to be asked and the independence of the work that attempts to answer them.” For starters, Facebook won’t be able to review or approve the researchers’ findings prior to publication. 

Related: "We Have To Try." Three Questions for Larry Kramer, President of the Hewlett Foundation

You can see why foundations and researchers are so keen to get inside Facebook to better understand the flow of disinformation through its network, as well as other issues. That's where all the good data lies. And this initiative is exciting to the extent that it yields valuable insights into how social media can distort politics and subvert elections—as well as preventing that from happening.

But then what? 

What if Facebook doesn't want to follow the research where it leads, in order to preserve its bottom line? Or what if it makes only minor voluntary changes and, along with other Big Tech firms, chooses instead to fight meaningful regulation? What would be the next move for foundations? 

It's too early to answer these hypotheticals. For now, all we can do is situate this new research initiative within a broader funding effort that's emerged since the 2016 election to counter digital disinformation and fake news itself. Hewlett is the latest foundation on this scene, with its recent $10 million gift to support research. Other efforts underway include the News Integrity Initiative, which Facebook is directly funding along with the Ford Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation, and others. 

One final note: It's interesting to see the Charles Koch Foundation among the funders backing this latest effort. Koch’s involvement highlights how these challenges cross ideological lines. In the end, pretty much all of us are on social media. Whatever our politics, if donors are in a position to advance our collective wisdom on these disruptive technologies, it’s in our best interest that they do so. As long, that is, as something actually comes of that research.