​Tech and finance firms should be held to the same account: Goyle

A former state legislator and startup founder Raj Goyle has said it's about time technology companies are examined for their role in politics in the same way banks and financial institutions are held to account.

(Image: Nordwood Themes/Unsplash)

Tech giants should be held to the same account as other companies such as banks and insurers when it comes to their potential influence on politics, according to Raj Goyle, who served two terms in the Kansas House of Representatives and went on to found artificial intelligence startup Bodhala.

The civil rights lawyer-turned-entrepreneur told ZDNet that those involved in the US political system are "asleep at the switch about the growing role of technology in our lives" and that "the moment of reckoning is finally here because of the crisis surrounding last year's election".

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all been asked to testify to the United States Congress regarding Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election.

"There was not enough transparency [being demanded from] tech companies to ensure that they are operating responsibly given their power and role in society," he said.

Goyle said financial companies have long and rightfully faced scrutiny because of their influence on society and the economy. As such, it's not necessarily a bad thing that the government is looking to better understand the role that social media and other online tools have played in the recent presidential election, and the role they should play as private companies in future elections, he said.

"If an investment bank simply said to the country, the policymakers, and the regulators, 'Hey, don't blame us, all of this terrible activity happens in our systems, but we just operate the system and what happens on it is really up to the people on it', we would say that's completely inappropriate," the Bodhala co-founder and co-CEO said.

"This is why banks have know-your-customer rules; they have anti-money laundering rules. And there is a constant discussion and collaboration between the private sector and the public sector about that balance.

"But we have never had that discussion around the role of the technology platforms. It's almost been a year [since the election], it's certainly been more than a year since the Influence campaign started, and only now are we starting to dribble out little pieces of information."

Tech companies need to be more forthcoming about their business practices and their accountability measures, Goyle said.

"These are questions that are asked of every other industry in every generation of every technological peak ... the notion that big tech companies get to live in their own universe without obligation and without answering these questions and balancing their responsibilities, that I think is fanciful," he said.

"I'm sure many of the venture capitalists in Silicon Valley would disagree with that, but remember their incentives are about profit maximisation.

"I couldn't imagine in the coming months and years that there will not be some pendulum swinging the other way ... there needs to be some regulation and public dialogue between what is allowed on these platforms and what isn't."

When asked whether government interference could lead to the obstruction of freedom of speech, especially in a complex political climate, Goyle said "these are not new issues".

"We balance constitutional rights and privacy and commerce all the time in sector after sector -- in insurance, in health care, in transportation, in media," he added.

"It's a little bit funny for me to hear comments like, 'the sky is falling'. Why can't we have these discussions about oversight and responsibility when every other sector faces these concerns?"

Referencing a New York Magazine article, Goyle said that we are yet to fully understand the power of a platform such as Facebook, because "it's become a Frankenstein of sorts".

Last week, Facebook founder and frontman Mark Zuckerberg indicated that he is aware of the influence his social media platform had in the 2016 presidential election, even recalling Facebook's efforts in encouraging people to vote. He also pointed out that every candidate had a Facebook page to communicate directly with followers, with "hundreds of millions" of dollars spent on advertising campaigns on the platform.

"[Our efforts] helped as many as 2 million people register to vote. To put that in perspective, that's bigger than the get out the vote efforts of the Trump and Clinton campaigns put together," he said in a Facebook post. "That's a big deal."

Zuckerberg also said "more people had a voice in this election than ever before", with "billions of interactions" about a variety of issues that "may have never happened offline". Some of these issues were overlooked in the media, Zuckerberg added.

"[The] data we have has always shown that our broader impact -- from giving people a voice to enabling candidates to communicate directly to helping millions of people vote -- played a far bigger role in this election," he said in his post.

However, Zuckerberg's remark that Facebook will do its part to "defend against nation states attempting to spread misinformation and subvert elections" and "ensure the integrity of free and fair elections around the world" raised some questions.

Goyle said it is understandable that people subsequently questioned why a private company -- private in the sense that it is not a government-owned entity -- would go to great lengths to ensure the integrity of elections, given traditionally it is not its role to do so.

"There are obviously a lot more questions to be asked," Goyle said.

Zuckerberg, however, pointed out last week that 2016 saw the first US election where the internet was the primary medium of communication between candidates and the electorate.

While former US president Barack Obama is widely regarded as having popularised the use of social media to communicate with the electorate, questions around the role of social media are on the government's radar now because of what the alleged Russian interference could mean for American democracy.

The concerns of the Senate and House intelligence committees -- which are the main congressional panels investigating allegations that Russia interfered in the latest US presidential election, as well as possible collusion between Trump associates and Russia -- centre on the dissemination of false information through advertising.

Facebook revealed in September that suspected Russian trolls purchased more than $100,000 worth of divisive ads on its platform between June 2015 and May 2017, a revelation that triggered calls for new disclosure rules for online political ads.

The social media giant said the purchases came from around 500 "inauthentic" accounts and pages seemingly affiliated with each other. Facebook shut down the active accounts and pages -- which it said appeared to have been operating from Russia -- for violating its policies.

It also said it will turn over to the US Congress Russian-linked ads that may have been intended to sway the 2016 US election.

In a meeting with House and Senate intelligence committees last week, Twitter executives shared more than 1,800 promoted tweets from Russian-government backed news network Russia Today, also known as RT.

Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said this week that RT's ads on Twitter -- valued at around $247,000 -- were "almost entirely" aimed at driving negative coverage of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"I also strongly believe that the RT ads on Twitter should be made public; a review of a representative sample reveals that they are almost entirely designed to push Russian news coverage adverse to Secretary Clinton's campaign," Schiff said in a statement.

"Moreover, there is far more forensic work to be done by the technology companies to reveal the full extent of Russian use of social media, a subject we will be probing with them during our upcoming open hearing."

Goyle said it's "ironic" that social media platforms tell its advertisers that they know "everything down to the comma about billions of users because there is revenue potential there".

"And yet they say they can't know more about their customers when it imposes a cost," Goyle added.

"You can't really have it both ways. If you're telling your advertisers that you have an extraordinary amount of insight into the users, then certainly you should be giving insight into the bad actors to make sure that they don't subvert democracy, enable illicit and illegal actions, and so forth."

Updated October 5, 2017 9:00pm AEST: Raj Goyle's previous role corrected.