Feb 28, 2018 - Technology

Obama wants a "significant conversation" about Big Social

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Former president Barack Obama said last week at a sports analytics conference at MIT that companies like Google and Facebook, as well as Twitter and other platforms, have to have a conversation about their business model and "recognize that they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise."

Why it matters: While the former president didn't explicitly call for more regulation of these platforms the way other public figures have, he did for the first time acknowledge that they are shaping our culture in powerful ways.

"[W]e have to have serious conversation about what are the business models, the algorithms, (and) the mechanics whereby we can create more of a common conversation and that cannot just be a commercially driven conversation."

Obama's comments come amid a growing backlash agains the dominance of big tech and the way big platforms shape public conversation and opinion. His comments are particularly poignant given the close relationship his campaign and administration had with the tech community, which typically embraces progressive social ideals.

  • "If we don't have at least a common baseline of facts our democracy over time gets constrained and thats what's happened," Obama said.

Obama's position contrasts that of President Trump, who told Axios in an interview last year that he would not force the government to intervene in the dominance of Facebook because the platform's reach benefits his communication goals. He did however, allude to welcoming market pressure to take on Facebook.

While Obama admitted he's a huge admirer of what Facebook, Google and some of the other big platforms have accomplished, he says basic rules are needed to ensure the marketplace works fairly.

  • "I always try to remind people that capitalism works and the marketplace works because they are some basic rules when in place create even playing fields that ensure people aren't defrauded."
  • "As a consequence you have a international marketplace of trust and new ideas can grow not just be crushed by guardrails by anticompetitive behavior."

What's next: Obama suggests that any action that should be taken in response to the dominance of these platforms is complicated. He says other countries, like China, that manage open access with censorship are not upholding the values of a society that he would want to live in.

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