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Tech platforms profit from 'hate, abuse, and exploitation'

Tom Belger
Finance and policy reporter
Federal Trade Commission (FTC) member Rohit Chopra. Photo: Ron Sachs / CNP/Sipa USA

A US Federal Trade Commissioner has accused global tech platforms of profiting from “hate, abuse, and exploitation” at the summit of world leaders in Davos.

Rohit Chopra, an outspoken Democrat member of the consumer and competition agency, took aim at tech giants including Facebook and YouTube at a panel event on safeguarding children from harm online on Thursday.

Speaking after another panelist had highlighted an increase in child abuse images and videos shared online, he said regulators should consider “going after” firms’ business models rather than encouraging them to hire moderators.

He claimed harmful content would “of course” be amplified because firms looked to monetise user behaviour.

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Chopra said: “This surveillance-based advertising model that some of these platforms are built on means the thirst for more and more and more data, including from our children, is unquenchable.

"We know algorithms that are powering recommendation engines and news feeds are obviously going to be designed to maximise profits for these firms.

“Maybe we fix the business model, rather than trying to push companies to hire hordes of content moderators—which I think in some ways is almost an impossible job to be successful that,” he said.

He added: "There's been hate, abuse and exploitation in our world forever, and there will continue to be.

"This is one of the first times in history where it's profitable. YouTube, Facebook, all of these platforms - they benefit from some of this enraging content.”

He also told an audience at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual summit in Switzerland that individually targeted advertising could be “inherently manipulative.”

Chopra has attacked Facebook’s business model before. He voted against a $5bn fine the Federal Trade Commission imposed on the social media firm last year in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, arguing the penalty for privacy violations should have been tougher.

His dissenting judgement argued Facebook’s conduct in allowing developers to harvest data was a “direct result” of its business model, which he said monetised user behaviour through mass surveillance.

It comes a day after the UK’s information commissioner published a code of practice to protect children’s privacy online, aimed at developers of online software.

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“In an age when children learn how to use an iPad before they ride a bike, it is right that organisations designing and developing online services do so with the best interests of children in mind,” said information commissioner Elizabeth Denham on Wednesday. “Children’s privacy must not be traded in the chase for profit.”

YouTube UK declined to comment, but a spokesperson highlighted its recent statements on removing harmful content and the “great progress” it has made stopping it spread and protecting children’s privacy.

Facebook has been approached for comment.