By Chris Lewis
When people mention the digital divide, often they’re referring to the divide between people who have access to the internet and those who do not. However, we can also visualize it as the divide between those who benefit from free expression on social media and other digital platforms—and those who don’t.
In order to get ahead of this burgeoning digital divide, policymakers will need to preserve the values of privacy and consumer choice in a way that one does not undermine the other.
This past February, the New York Times profiled Jalaiah Harmon, the creator of the viral TikTok dance, “The Renegade.” But Harmon didn’t create the dance on TikTok; she used a smaller app, Funimate, and crossed-posted her video to Instagram. Instagram is where other popular TikTok creators first learned of the dance. TikTok, like many platforms, doesn’t encourage posters to give credit to creators.
Instead of Jalaiah benefiting from the virality of her own dance, other TikTok users did. Those benefits include brand deals, media opportunities, and the chance to connect with the professional dance world. If Jalaiah had been able to easily cross-post from Funimate to TikTok, she may have been able to benefit from “The Renegade” right from the start.
Apps like Funimate, Dubsmash, and Likee offer smaller, vibrant communities, often popular with users of color and other marginalized communities. These smaller platforms may provide functionality that other apps don’t, or they may just foster community in a way that appeals more to users that are not considered mainstream who want to preserve their unique culture. Apps like TikTok may not provide that opportunity, and that is okay when consumers have choices in the marketplace.
However, because these communities are smaller, users have fewer opportunities to monetize their creativity. These smaller applications also have a harder time benefiting from the creativity of their users. In the case of Jalaiah, instead of new users flocking to Funimate to check out Jalaiah’s other videos, TikTok benefited from the dance and probably grew its user base because of it.
In Washington, conversations about interoperability (the technical capability of different platforms to communicate with each other and work together) have become one of several pro-competition, pro-consumer choice policy solutions to gain notice.
In the TikTok/Funimate case, interoperability would allow users to create videos on Funimate but have them viewable on TikTok. This functionality would also make it easier for TikTok users to leave TikTok if they thought another video sharing app would provide them with better content, better usability, or just a better community.
One of the most common excuses by tech companies to avoid engaging in interoperability, or even basic data sharing at the user’s request, is that doing so may violate concerns about preserving users’ privacy. This excuse is meant to force policymakers to give platforms a reprieve from either more stringent privacy protections, or, if Congress must pass comprehensive privacy rules, to lock in existing platforms and online companies with a competitive advantage. That is a false choice.
Most platforms get a lot of data from their users. Whether it’s for personalizing the user experience, targeting ads, or both, internet companies collect so much personal information that they know a lot about what the user wants, who their user is, what the user does, whom the user connects with, what the user likes, and where the user moves.
As a result, it is often hard to stop using a platform or leave for its competition. We call this concept the cost of exclusion. If leaving a platform equals leaving memories, artistic works, or friends behind, or even abandoning a digital-self that represents us in ways that we can’t offline, then very few people are going to do it. The social cost is too high.
Without a growing user base, newer platforms often can’t compete with older, dominant players. This is especially problematic for platforms that cater to marginalized groups like people of color, queer people, or people with disabilities.
Interoperability can help new platforms build up a store of data they can use to improve their services, because when they gain a new user, that user can also bring access to their data and portions of their social graph from the old service. This can increase the power of users “voting with their feet” by leaving one service to switch to another. If users’ data becomes shared across services, then the new service they’ve chosen can doubly benefit: It gets a new user and a new source of data.
But while sharing data can be useful to both users and platforms alike, how do we preserve users’ privacy? And how can we prevent the data from being exploited?
First, we need a comprehensive privacy law. A comprehensive law would set a baseline expectation for preserving user privacy, regardless of the size of an online service or platform. Baseline expectations between platforms give all users, regardless of what platform they choose, protection against data discrimination or other privacy violations.
Second, we need interoperability rules that govern internet platforms to be a part of the privacy conversation. These rules wouldn’t just govern how platforms are made interoperable, but would also give users additional privacy protections. As a baseline, interoperability rules could limit how platforms use the data they get from interoperable systems. The rules could also prevent platforms from using that data for advertising or any other purpose not explicitly requested by the user.
With combined privacy and interoperability protections, an individual user will remain protected and as their data moves from one platform to the next, with the freedom to share and benefit from their creativity without accepting weaker privacy or giving into the cost of exclusion from a dominant platform. If a user does decide to use an interoperable system, then that user’s friends’ or followers’ data could be available to the new platform if the consent is given by the users friends for interoperable sharing.
The internet is a powerful tool for free expression and, as such, we must preserve spaces where marginalized groups congregate, create, and interact as a community. Niche communities may not represent your individual viewpoint, and some may be outright hateful, but if we are to preserve consumer choices for free expression for some communities, we cannot deny it for others.
If larger platforms are essentially stealing the content, work, and ideas of users on smaller platforms, then that harms not only the individual who created the content, but the original platform that housed the content. Privacy-preserving interoperability could be the solution to preserving spaces for marginalized communities, while still allowing them to benefit from their work.