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The Avenue

Facebook’s political controversy points to emerging issues between cities and big-data platforms

The technology and political worlds collided last month when some conservatives accused Facebook of suppressing conservative political views. This issue continues to evolve, as the social media platform addressed the concerns with a private roundtable with leading conservative voices and further promises to reform its “Trending Topics” news section.

I believe that, while Facebook did the right thing by its shareholders, comforting its critics swept under the rug a number of constitutional and regulatory issues related to big data platforms. Unlike Facebook, local government will eventually have to face those issues head-on.

Cities were not involved with this particular controversy. Nonetheless, every level of government, from multi-national bodies to local municipalities are increasingly involved with policy issues related to big data. Protecting the security and privacy of information will largely be left to the state and national level. But cities, particularly as they become “smart,” are all going to need cyber-security plans to protect essential infrastructure that depends on big data. 

Cities are also on the front lines for big data and social equity. In 2014, a White House report found that societal discrimination may “be the inadvertent outcome of the way big data technologies are structured and used.” A follow-up 2015 report outlined how big data could lead to both societal improvements and data discrimination in terms of access to credit, jobs, and higher education, and criminal justice. Cities will experience a similar phenomenon as they employ algorithms to improve services.

Cities will also be implicated when an entity has such a significant data advantage that competition—or, in the case of Facebook, political discourse—might be unfairly skewed. Whenever a media platform has become the equivalent to a town square, government has tried to maintain some form of fair access for appearances and advertising by candidates.

But fairness is not just important for political debate. Governments also act to protect fair markets. Here again, big data raises new issues. 

Cities, like all major enterprises in this era, look to big data to improve how they fulfill their mission. Sometimes they partner with private sector actors to share data and improve services on all sides. For example, various cities partner with Waze, and others with Uber, to improve transportation. Similarly, Chicago used big data in a partnership with Allstate to improve food inspection. Partnerships occur at the national level as well, such as the Google AI company’s controversial use of millions of British National Health Service patient records to develop a kidney monitoring app.

As cities develop ways to exploit the emerging Civic Internet of Things, such partnerships will become common. These partnerships hold great promise and should be encouraged. Nonetheless, governments have to be conscious that data is an asset for enterprises and, in addition to protecting the security of the data, cities have to ensure that access to certain data does not cause competitive problems.

Looking at this new set of issues, cities should resist the temptation to think that every problem has a government-imposed solution. In the case of the recent controversy with Facebook, much of the criticism of the company implicitly ignores the First Amendment right of Facebook to provide content without government oversight. In the case of social inequity being exacerbated by big data, it is difficult to see how government can write rules that result in better algorithms.

Nonetheless, a public debate on these issues should be welcome. Transparency (or sunlight, as Justice Brandies wrote) is the best disinfectant. Further, cities have to have the internal staff resources to understand both the promise and perils of big data. Finally, cities should lead in the public discussion of these issues as the pragmatic framework cities bring to the issues is likely to be more productive than the more ideological framework that inflicts debates in D.C.

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