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The metaverse is a distraction

In an op-ed, Yair Flicker writes on what's behind Facebook's rebrand to Meta, and what Maryland should do about it.

Getting Meta. (Photo via Meta)
This is an op-ed by Yair Flicker, president of Baltimore software development consultancy SmartLogic.
The idea of a metaverse is not new.

Its dystopian origins discarded (see Snow Crash, The Matrix, Ready Player One, etc), Mark Zuckerberg is now pitching us a vision of an “always on” / “always connected” life, augmented by technology. Facebook (now Meta) is not the only internet giant aiming at this particular flavor of world domination; the Big Five are all racing to get ahead of each other just as they have in the past with any number of new tech trends like the Internet of Things, live streaming video, personal assistants, messaging, and more.

On the one hand, if this is just another in a long string of battlegrounds for the tech titans, does it really matter? Maybe not. But the timing and tenor of this move in particular are a strong signal that something is amiss—and has been for a long time.

While our centralized government struggles to understand and regulate Big Tech, there are lessons we can learn and steps that we can take both in Baltimore and more broadly across Maryland to shift the balance of power back toward our citizens.

Pay attention to the man behind the curtain

What’s the best way to squash an unfavorable news story? Make some news that you can control, and give everyone something new to think about.

As in the Wizard of Oz, the spectacle of the Meta announcement is timed perfectly to distract us from the scathing facts coming out in public hearings and via whistleblowers. There have long been rumblings, and in the past few years we have started to see an actual antitrust movement targeted at the internet giants’ veritable monopolies. The recently leaked Facebook Files and public testimony in Congress have brought to light some ugly truths about what Facebook knows and willingly hides.

Internal research at Facebook has documented the negative impacts on teenage girls—including an increase in suicidal thoughts, and worsening of poor self-image—and yet Facebook only paused development of “Instagram for Kids days before the October hearings.

Other harms caused by Facebook and revealed in the leaked internal documentation include election interference, spreading of religious hatred, and unchecked hate speech leading to physical violence. The engagement algorithm that Facebook uses to prioritize content “is causing teenagers to be exposed to more anorexia content. It is pulling families apart. And in places like Ethiopia, it’s literally fanning ethnic violence,” according to whistleblower Frances Haugen.

As Facebook rebrands to Meta, Zuckerberg is not only providing a distraction, he is building a buffer for himself, elevating himself to the newly-formed parent company. The new CEO at Facebook then will be the scapegoat, and Zuckerberg will be even more fortified and detached from the real world.

States can lead the way in regulation

Our laws and regulations have struggled to keep up with the pace of change in the internet age. The federal government seems to struggle to pass legislation even for broadly popular initiatives. In that absence of federal regulation, then, states can step in and lead the way.

Maryland is one of many states that now taxes digital goods and services, and was the first state to pass a law taxing digital advertising; Baltimore City is also leading the way on privacy, with a recent ban on facial recognition software. Privacy regulation has been cited by experts as one of the most meaningful steps available to curb the power and influence of internet giants like Facebook. Colorado, California, and Virginia have already passed comprehensive consumer data privacy laws, and the EU’s GDPR has been in effect now for several years, so we have several working models to use as good starting points for local legislation.

While a state-by-state approach can seem piecemeal and potentially confusing, state laws often cause companies to shift policies across the board to meet the more protective standards. Regulations like those introduced in SB 930, the Maryland Online Consumer Protection Act, sponsored by State Senatore Susan C. Lee, would help to protect our citizens and build momentum toward a unified national policy.

Big Tech has shown no interest in self-regulating. The companies will continue to take advantage and profit off of the exploitation of individuals until such time as regulations force Big Tech into more ethical behavior. Maryland can help lead the way to make the internet a safer place for us all.

Companies: SmartLogic / Facebook

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