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The Rise of Content Cartels

Douek, Evelyn

"The fear that a single actor can decide what can or cannot be said in large parts of the online public sphere has led to growing calls for measures to promote competition between digital platforms. At the same time, others are demanding greater cooperation between the custodians of the public sphere. These pressures are not necessarily at odds, but some work needs to be done to reconcile them. To what extent should platforms have consistent content moderation policies? If standards and guardrails are imposed on the public sphere, should platforms work together to ensure that the online ecosystem as a whole realizes these standards, or would society benefit more if it is every platform for itself?

These are questions that need answering as society and regulators demand that platforms become more responsible gatekeepers. Economic competition alone cannot solve many of the speech-related pathologies in online discourse. Collaboration between tech platforms on especially intractable problems allows us to break free of the false dichotomy between too few online gatekeepers holding too much power, on the one hand, and a fragmented online public sphere constituted by multiple fiercely competitive platforms, on the other.

But this collaboration must be done in a way that keeps a broader sense of the public interest at its core. Currently, most collaboration takes the form of rushed ad hoc alliances of convenience that arise in response to particular crises. The pressure to do something can lead to the creation of systems and structures that serve the interests of the very tech platforms that they seek to rein in. I call these content cartels: arrangements between platforms to work together to remove content or actors from their services without adequate oversight. These come in various guises; they can be demanded, encouraged, participated in, or unheeded by regulators. But they share the characteristic that they compound the existing lack of accountability in platform content moderation.

In this paper, I begin by tracing the origin and spread of content cartels in Part I, showing that content cartels are the proposed response to an increasing number of pathologies in online discourse. Part II examines the impulses behind demands for greater cooperation and the ways in which such cooperation can be beneficial. Part III explores the failures of the current arrangements and the threats they pose to free speech. Part IV sets an agenda for developing the tools to create productive and legitimate cooperation between platforms in those areas where it can be beneficial or has become inevitable.

This paper has two goals. The first is to raise the alarm about a possible future coming into view, of unaccountable content cartels making decisions about the parameters of online discourse in a way that is just as problematic as an unaccountable monopoly. The second is to explore what can be beneficial about collaborative efforts and what might redeem them. This is a pivotal moment in the management of public discourse, and the structures built now should serve enduring values. We need not settle for institutions that stick band-aids on some problems but do not serve the deeper goal of building trust in online speech governance."

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