The Senate Economics References Committee has recently been investigating the power and influence of "Big Tech" over Australian democracy. Our submission was that as the Australian government fails to even try competing against such growing powers, then the Australian way of life is increasingly just the whims of what Big Tech lets us do.
The subsequent release of ChatGPT just days later has vividly shown how true our predictions are − that people live online, outside the notion of "Australia"; and that if we are to have any say in how our society operates; then our governments need to be participants in providing our online life.
Governments are failing to maintain relevance in our lives because they fail to offer enough digital services. Their approach has typically been to get in the way or to create guardrails, rather than doing anything proactive.
By increasingly losing relevance, governments are setting the stage to be usurped by the whims of Silicon Valley. In this article, we'll explain the reasoning behind the ultimate recommendation:
Leverage Australia's eager and educated population to enable open-source competition and undermine poorly-aligned, monopolistic digital platforms wherever they appear in the world 🤖👪🌏
The view of the Fusion Party is that governments should create long-term harmony, economic success and wellbeing for their constituents, especially those who can vote. We'll explore how governments can better live up to such goals by embracing the power of digital platforms, and how the current power players in this space are undermining the goals of good government.
Moving Fast and Breaking Things
The tech startups of the US have been incredible at iterating fast, identifying market demand, and creating services that quickly scale before competitors can get in on the action. Creating moats for the business inherently implies a monopoly, which is typically bad in the long-term.
By scaling faster than what's potentially sustainable, the business itself is vulnerable to collapsing, so it's no wonder that it also risks creating chaos in the outside world, breaking existing practices.
These businesses are explicitly trying to innovate faster than the rest of society, so to point out that governments aren't keeping up with them is more of a corollary than an antagonistic criticism.
Harnessing technology, especially computational thought (software) is allowing people to keep spinning up new services that don't have our best interests at heart.
To overcome this constant phenomenon of viral chaos, governments can embrace some of the innovative techniques themselves, or they can put their foot down and kill any sort of innovation. We'll revisit how governments can be more innovative, but let's finish clarifying why it's necessary and why it's playing out that tech companies are often not serving our long-term interests.
There are few organisations explicitly aiming to create long-term harmony, economic success and wellbeing for their members. For any useful service, unless there's a subscription fee, then the default approach has been to rely on advertising, so we've seen the rise of the Attention Economy.
It's in the interests of Facebook and Google to have a bunch of mesmerised users bickering amongst each other about anything at all, not necessarily anything important. So long as these people have enough money to keep buying the products pushed by the advertisers, Google and Facebook would be happy.
Productivity is the enemy of extended attention, so Google wants you to keep coming back to search, instead of helping you figure out the answer proactively. Facebook wants to keep pinging you about gossip, even if it means interrupting your productive work and lowering your IQ by a greater extent than if you had smoked weed.
Although LinkedIn is a handy place to look for a job, LinkedIn has no real interest in your career success. They make money from recruiters spamming 10% of the job market and ghosting the other 90%. It's in LinkedIn's interests to keep people shuffling into mildly satisfying jobs, switching every year or two. The job market and the education market have long been considered responsibilities of government, and if there was a government-run LinkedIn, we can be sure that it would have visible differences to Microsoft's version.
Who invented the term "quiet quitting"? It would be no surprise if LinkedIn helped proliferate the term, to keep people shuffling into new jobs.
Some are calling it The Great #Resignation.— Key Global Recruitment (@recruitment_key) April 13, 2022
And we want to know, have you resigned from your job recently?
And why did you decide to quit?#jobs #careers #jobsearch #techrecruiter pic.twitter.com/a6ItKTfyd3
The end result is that people end up living frivolous, unproductive lives, unable to focus on anything other than the short term. Just as capitalism ignores environmental effects, so too does it ignore the effect on people's wellbeing and their tendency towards suicide, when it squeezes revenue out of our citizens.
Accessing content from anywhere in the world inevitably means that Australians can live a life that's less Australian. Nations have sometimes mandated that TV broadcasters need to stream a decent amount of local content, but the principle of forcing people to do what the government wants is becoming less and less effective.
In 2014, the Canadian government reprimanded pornography companies for not featuring enough Canadians in their footage. The problem persists to this day:
Porn stars per 1M residents. Source.
The easy access to warped information can also cause financial stress: American property managers using data from RealPage were told that the rental prices were higher than they actually were, causing the property managers to increase their own rents to seemingly keep up with the market. The incorrect information was inadvertently (or perhaps deliberately) affecting collusion amongst large chunks of the real estate market, driving up rents by as much as 14.5%.
We could ask why something as important as housing affordability was left so much to the whims of the market, with its tendency towards monopolies. What if the government was providing detailed, truthful rental information, allowing competition to flourish?
The warped information available online is not just due to content creators or user preferences; there are deliberate decisions being made by tech companies to silence voices and kill stories.
We saw for instance when the former president of the US was kicked off what was arguably the town square; a move that would effectively scrub lesser-known people from existence.
Locking people out is not a careful decision done by panels − it is largely automated; and if there's human review, then these humans are lowly-paid workers suffering PTSD from all the disturbing content they see day in, day out.
In 2022, an American father was working with a physician for a diagnosis of his son's swollen penis. After a picture he took was automatically uploaded to Google Photos, it was flagged as child pornography and the father was completely locked out of all Google services − over a decade's worth of personal and business email, files and calendar entries.
The son would've already been locked out of many online services, for the simple fact that he was under 13 years old: the COPPA act requires American companies to gain parental consent in order to gather any personally identifiable information about its child users, even if those children are not in the US!
The end result is that many American companies can't be bothered doing business with children, so they miss out on all the innovations happening in the rest of society.
By Australia leaning on the US to do all the innovation in software, we are endorsing the notion that our children are second-class citizens who don't deserve access to society.
What are they allowed to do?
Let's not forget either, the lazy web accessibility practices taken by American firms. By contrast, Canada is fining organisations up to $250,000 for failing to make their websites accessible to users with disabilities.
When the phone network and the NBN were established in Australia, the consensus was that all Australians deserved access. The practices of American tech companies are fundamentally un-Australian; and by deferring to them for our modern existence, our way of life is being swapped away, right under our noses.
A Threat to Our Existence
American and Chinese tech companies are controlling the entire online presence of our citizens, but their approach to identity verification and content moderation are not what the Australian government or the ABC would do. Australia would not strip people of citizenship on a whim, unless of course it allowed the government to shirk some responsibilities.
As Deepfakes have become more feasible and GPT-3 can readily create comprehensible articles, there is, right now, a possibility that individuals can generate entire societies online. Australian citizens are, right now, at risk of being misclassified as AIs, and blocked from existence!
How is the government meant to protect against it? What sort of hammer are you going to pull out to ensure that tech companies don't classify our people as AIs? The government can no longer rely on hammers and sticks; it needs to play a role in allowing tech companies to check whether our citizens exist.
Harnessing the Power
New technologies have for centuries been giving more power to individuals to become sovereign citizens − potential enemies of the state, who sneak around our rules and actively undermine our institutions. This became most apparent with the leaks from Edward Snowden and the inconsistent, reprehensible persecution of journalists who published the leaks.
Julian Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy, abandoned by the Australian government
Governments do not need to continue on the path of using blunt instruments to get their way − we can direct funding towards using the power of emerging technology (especially software) to create a society that our citizens love.
We saw that many of the problems from "big tech" are simply due to the fact that they don't have the incentive to do the right thing. For security for instance, nobody gets paid for good security, so companies keep getting hacked. What if the government paid the salaries of some software engineers to contribute to open-source security software?
What if governments funded open-source alternatives to ecommerce and for social networks? The market could quickly use this software as the basis for competing with Facebook or Amazon. The open-source skeleton could have standards for sharing data, to prevent lock-in. We could integrate with an Australian government identity service so that users could quickly sign up, with sites having full confidence that each human can only create one account, even while obfuscating this person's personal information!
When Instagram was purchased by Facebook for $1 billion, it only had 13 employees. The power of software engineers is enormous. If Australia funded the creation of open-source software, then other countries would similarly reap the benefits funded by us, but so what? The ROI for Australia would be huge, and if others used it too, well it helps enable a more Australian way of life, which must be good, isn't it? If the Australian way of life wasn't something to be proud of, then we could just stick to the status quo of letting US big tech decide how we're going to live, or whether we get to be part of society at all.
A TechCrunch reporter with Drew Houston (Dropbox), Arash Ferdowsi (Dropbox), and Kevin Systrom (Instagram), at the 2013 Crunchie awards.
Scaling During Disaster
The software built in private industry rarely fails to scale from 0 to 100 to meet a surge in demand. Compare this to government departments though, unable to deal with any disaster, causing people to queue around the block during the COVID pandemic or to have sex with their hotel security staff.
By hiring software engineers to serve the interests of Australian society, we can move more government operations to be done in a scalable and cost-effective manner. How are we supposed to process all the people coming in during the imminent migrant crisis from climate change?
We can create scalable foundations for the whole world to operate in an Australian way; maintaining our existence and sharing our proudest possession: our way of life; with humanity.
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