CIMA announces the release of its most recent report, The New Gatekeepers: Controlling Information in the Internet Age, by veteran journalist and media development trainer Bill Ristow. The report traces how the technological revolution of the past few decades has created a new corporate world of Internet-based companies that have become the new gatekeepers of information.
The technological revolution of the past few decades has opened up a world of information for anyone with a computer, smartphone, tablet, and an Internet connection. And it has created a new corporate world as well: companies that didn’t exist 20 years ago but that have become among the most highly capitalized in the world by creating ways to help us work, play, converse, learn, argue, shop, and do nearly anything else, all online.
In the process, whether by helping us find information, organize it, prioritize it, or share it, in many ways these Internet companies have become the new gatekeepers of information–and their data-parsing algorithms the twenty first century equivalent of the stereotypical editor with the green eyeshade who filtered the news before passing it along to readers. Of course, there are many big differences between that editor and, say, Google, Twitter, or Facebook. But one of the biggest is that these new gatekeepers aren’t just working in a single newsroom in a single city, largely isolated from everyone else.
The Internet companies, though the largest of them are based in the United States, are literally working on the World Wide Web, playing on a global scale and hoping to elbow out their competitors to lock up rich international markets. As they have expanded globally, these pioneering corporations have had to face, and deal with, a tough reality. The Internet that gave them birth espouses all sorts of high-minded principles of open and free expression. But many of the governments in countries that offer tantalizingly large commercial markets not only do not espouse those principles, they actively deny them. And so the computer and software engineers who have taken us out into the world increasingly find themselves having to navigate its thorniest problems, balancing profit against human rights, and thinking about hate speech, censorship, and yes, whether an image of a woman breastfeeding her baby violates a policy against depicting nudity.
As they forge ahead, a growing number of academics, civil-society organizations, and advocacy groups are working to monitor the impact of the new information gatekeepers. They appreciate the challenge these companies face, and laud them for much that they have achieved. But they also argue articulately that more oversight, more transparency, is needed. And they point to the companies’ own principles. Google, for instance, has long been known for an informal motto from its early days, “Don’t be evil.”
Given that, “it’s difficult to do business in a country that doesn’t have that principle,” said Madeline Earp, of Freedom House. When it comes to the thorny issues of free flow of information, she said, “companies themselves cannot be the final arbiters, which they are by default right now.”
Colin Maclay, managing director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, makes a specialty of studying such things. “Can we get the Internet companies to set a standard? Do we know what good behavior looks like?” he wonders. “If we can set global norms about what’s good behavior and what’s not, then we’re hopeful that in some of those challenging markets we can have better outcomes.”