Taylor Owen is a CIGI senior fellow and host of the Big Tech podcast. He is an expert on the governance of emerging technologies, journalism and media studies, and on the international relations of digital technology.
In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen discuss how our understanding of the impacts big tech has on society has shifted over the past year. Among these changes is the public’s greater awareness of the need for regulation in this sector.In their conversation, David and Taylor reflect upon some of the major events that have contributed to this shift. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for better mechanisms to stop the spread of misinformation. And it has shown that social media platforms are capable of quickly implementing some measures to curb the spread of misinformation. However, the Facebook Oversight Board, which their guest Kate Klonick talked about in season 1, is not yet operational, and won’t be until after the US presidential election; even then, its powers will be limited to appeals rather than content oversight.In July 2020, the big tech CEOs testified in an antitrust hearing before the US Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. “That moment,” Taylor Owen says, “represented a real turning point in the governance agenda.” This growing big tech antitrust movement is showing that law makers, now better prepared and understanding the issues more clearly, are catching up to big tech. The public is starting to recognize the harms alongside the benefits of these companies’ unfettered growth. In season 2, Matt Stoller spoke with David and Taylor about monopoly power, and how these modern giants are starting to look like the railroad barons of old.From diverse perspectives, all the podcast’s guests have made the point that technology is a net good for society but that the positives do not outweigh the negatives — appreciating the many benefits that platforms and technology bring to our lives does not mean we can give them free rein. As Taylor explains, “When we found out the petrochemical industry was also polluting our environment, we didn’t just ban the petrochemical industry and ignore all the different potential positives that came out of it. We just said you can’t pollute any more.” With the technology sector embedded in all aspects of our democracies, economies and societies, it’s clear we can no longer ignore the need for regulation.
Biotechnology — the use of biological processes for industrial and other purposes, especially through genetic manipulation of micro-organisms — is a field experiencing massive growth worldwide. For many decades, advances in biology have been made in large academic or corporate institutions, with entry to the field restricted by knowledge and financial barriers. Now, through information sharing and new means of accessing lab space and equipment, a whole new community of amateur scientists are entering the molecular biology space. The emergence of this growing do-it-yourself “biohacker” community raises ethical questions of what work should be allowed to proceed.In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak with Ellen Jorgensen, a molecular biologist and Chief Scientific Officer at Aanika Biosciences. She is an advocate for democratizing biotechnology by enabling more individuals to have access to lab space and equipment. Jurisdictions are taking different approaches to biotechnology, with some, such as the European Union and Africa, being more restrictive than others, such as China. What makes the fragmentation of governance surrounding genetic modification different from fragmentation in internet or tech governance is that biotechnology’s raw material is a global interconnected web of life. A biological modification can have unintended, even disastrous, impacts worldwide. For example, says Jorgensen, “What I’m concerned with is things like gene drives, which is a variety of CRISPR gene editing that [is] self-perpetuating.…So, 100 percent of the offspring, where one of the parents has this gene drive, all have the gene drive. So, it can spread through a population, particularly one with a short lifespan, like mosquitoes, within a very short period of time. And here, for the first time, we have the ability to potentially wipe out a species.” As Jorgensen points out, with such high stakes, we have an “inherent motivation to regulate.” Working together on a global set of standards, and setting aside their own ethical or moral understandings to find a solution that works for everyone, will present a challenge for nations.
Online advertisement and social media platforms have had a major impact on economies and societies around the globe. Those impacts are happening in retail, with the shift in spending from brick and mortar to online; in advertising, where revenues have moved from print and broadcast to online social platforms; and in society more broadly, through algorithmic-amplified extremism and hate speech. The big tech companies at the centre of these shifts have little incentive to change the nature of their operations. It now falls to nations around the globe to find ways to regulate big tech in the face of what many view as a market failure. In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak to Damian Collins, a British member of Parliament and former chair of the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee. As chair of DCMS, Collins led the investigation into Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit referendum. He was also involved in the creation of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and “Fake News.” Collins doesn’t blame the tech giants for their inaction, but rather sees the problem as governance policies that have lagged behind. There is a need for policy to catch up and ensure citizens are protected, just as other complex global markets, such as the financial industry, have done. International cooperation and information sharing enable nations to take on the large global tech companies together without each needing to start from scratch.
Journalism has had a storied history with the internet. Early on, the internet was a niche market, something for traditional publishers to experiment with as another medium for sharing news. As it gained popularity as a news source, newsrooms began to change as well, adapting their business models to the digital age. Newspapers had historically generated revenue through a mix of subscriptions, advertising and classifieds. But internet platforms Craigslist and Kijiji soon took over classified. Google Ads presented advertisers with more refined marketing tools than the newspapers could offer. And Facebook and Twitter made it possible for readers to consume news for free without visiting newspaper’s website. In this episode of Big Tech, co-hosts David Skok and Taylor Owen speak to Emily Bell, the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. Newsrooms are left with few options to make money now. Unless you are a large outlet with a sizable online subscriber base like The New York Times, your capacity for local reporting will be hampered by the economic need to focus on stories that have the broadest reach. Many media conglomerates have cut back their local reporting, creating news deserts across large regions. Not having local reporters on the case is having negative impacts on democracy, too. As Bell explains, “Where there is no local press…local officials tend to stay in office for longer. They tend to pay themselves more.” Smaller local news outlets that can build a relationship with their readers can see success if their readers are able to pay the subscription fees. But it is often poorer communities, where people can't afford local news subscriptions, that most need the services of good local journalism. Bell sees an opportunity to rethink the way news is funded: first, by looking to communities to decide what level of reporting they require, and second, by resourcing it accordingly. 
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11 hours, 47 minutes
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