Pluralistic: Saving the news from Big Tech with end-to-end social media (13 June 2023)

Today's links

EFF's banner for the save news series; the word 'NEWS' appears in pixelated, gothic script in the style of a newspaper masthead. Beneath it in four entwined circles are logos for breaking up ad-tech, ending surveillance ads, opening app stores, and end-to-end delivery. All the icons except for 'end-to-end delivery' are greyed out.

Saving the news from Big Tech with end-to-end social media (permalink)

Big Tech steals from the news, but it doesn't steal content – it steals money. In "Saving the News From Big Tech," a series for EFF, I've documented how tech monopolies in ad-tech and app stores result in vast cash transfers from the news to tech, starving newsrooms and gutting reporting:

Now we've published the final part, describing how social media platforms hold audiences hostage, charging media companies to reach the subscribers who asked to see what they have to say. And, as with the previous installments, we set out a proposal for forcing tech companies to end this practice, putting more money in the pockets of news producers:

The issue here is final stage of the enshittification cycle: first, platforms offer good deals and even subsidies to lure end users in. Then, once the users are locked in, platforms offer similarly good deals to business users (in this case, publishers, but see also Uber drivers, Amazon sellers, YouTube performers, etc) to lure them in. Once they're locked in, the platform flips the script: it withdraws subsidies from both end users and business customers (e.g. news readers and news publishers) and forces both groups to pay to continue to transact with each other.

In the case of the news and Big Tech, that process goes like this. First a platform like Facebook offers users a surveillance-free alternative to MySpace, where the deal is simple: tell us who matters to you on this site, and we'll show you what they post:

Users pile in and lock themselves in, through the "collective action problem" – the difficulty of convincing all your friends to leave, and to agree on where to go:

Then Facebook turns on the surveillance they promised they'd never engage in, and also begins to promise media companies that it will nonconsensually cram their posts down readers' eyeballs, luring in both advertisers and publishers. Users don't like their diluted feeds, or the surveillance, or the ads, but they like each other, and the collective action problem keeps them from leaving.

As publishers and advertisers grow increasingly dependent on Facebook, Facebook makes the deal worse for both. Ad prices go up, as does ad-fraud, meaning advertisers pay ever more for ads that are ever less likely to be shown to a user.

Publishers' "reach" is curtailed unless they put ever-larger excerpts onto Facebook, until they eventually must publish whole articles verbatim on the platform, making it a substitute for their web presence, rather than a funnel to drive traffic to their own sites. Facebook caps this off by downranking any post that includes a link to the public web, forcing publishers into the conspiracy to make "Facebook" synonymous with "the internet."

Then, in end-stage enshittification, publishers' reach is curtailed altogether. They are told – either explicitly or implicitly – that they have to pay to "boost" their material to reach the subscribers who asked to see it.

With social media ransom, tech finds a way to steal money from publishers no matter how they make that money. Tech monopolists command 51% of ever ad dollar. Tech monopolists rake off 30% of every in-app subscription dollar. And social media companies demand danegeld ("verification," "boosting," etc) from publishers who want to reach the audiences that asked to see their materials.

This isn't just bad for publishers, it's also bad for audiences. You joined the platform to see the feeds you subscribed to, but the platform gradually replaces more and more of your feed with ads and content from randos who pay to "boost" into your field of vision, at the expense of the friends, communities and publishers you asked to see:

What can we do about this? The answer lies in the founding ethic of the internet itself: the end-to-end principle.

Before the internet, telecommunications were controlled by centralized phone companies. If you wanted to reach someone else, you needed to connect to a centralized switching center, which decided whether to connect you, and if so, what to charge you.

The internet, by contrast, operates on the "end-to-end principle": the job of the network is to transmit data from willing senders to willing receivers, as efficiently and reliably as possible. One expression of end-to-end is Network Neutrality, the idea that carriers shouldn't be allowed to slow down the data you request unless the service you're trying to use pays for "premium carriage."

Social media has run the internet transitions in reverse. They started off as end-to-end, neutral platforms. You created an account, told them which data you wanted, and they put it in a feed for you. Then, as they enshittified, they turned into miniature Ma Bells. You don't get the data you requested, you get the data that someone is willing to pay to show you.

This means that publishers – including news publisher – have to pay ever-larger shares of their revenues to reach the people who asked to hear from them, and those people see an ever smaller proportion of the things they asked to see in their feeds.

The solution to this is to enshrine "end-to-end" delivery for social media: to make social media platforms' first duty to deliver data from willing senders to willing recipients, as efficiently and reliably as possible:

As a policy, end-to-end has a lot going for it. First, it is easy to administer. If you want to find out if a company is reliably delivering posts from willing senders to willing receivers, you can easily verify it by creating accounts and performing experiments. Compare this to more complicated policies, like "platforms must not permit harassment on their services." To administer that policy, you need to agree on a definition of harassment, agree on whether a specific user's conduct rises to the level of harassment, then investigate whether the platform took reasonable steps to prevent it.

These fact-intensive questions are the enemy of effective enforcement. Bad actors can (and do) exploit definitional ambiguity to engage in conduct that almost rises to the level of harassment, and which is experienced as harassment, but which doesn't qualify as harassment:

Then there's the problem of figuring out whether platforms' failures to block harassment are reasonable or negligent, a question that can literally take years to resolve, and then only by deposing the engineers who build and maintain the systems involved.

By contrast, detecting end-to-end violations is simple and clean, and has an easy remedy in the event that violations are detected: if a company doesn't deliver the messages it is supposed to deliver, a regulator or court can order it to do so.

Another important advantage of end-to-end: it is a cheap policy to comply with. Complicated platform regulations can have the perverse effect of being so expensive to comply with that only the largest – and worst, and most harmful – platforms can afford to follow the rule. That means that smaller platforms – including nonprofits, co-ops, and small businesses – are snuffed out by compliance costs, trapping users and business customers in giant, abusive walled gardens, forever:

Imposing an end-to-end requirement on platforms would kill the practice of holding news publishers' audiences for ransom. What's more, it's a policy that would benefit both large and small publishers – unlike, say, a profit-sharing arrangement between Big Tech and the news, which delivers disproportionate benefits to the largest publishers, whose owners are typically either billionaire dilettantes or private equity looters. And, unlike profit-sharing arrangements, end-to-end continues to provide value for publishers even if the tech companies crash and burn, or get broken up by regulators. We want our news to be adversaries and watchdogs for Big Tech, not its partners, with a shared stake in Big Tech's growth and profits.

Now that the EFF "Saving the News" series is done, we're rounding up the whole thing into a PDF "white paper," suitable for emailing to your friends, elected representatives, and fellow news junkies. That'll be up in a day or two, and I'll post here when it is. In the meantime, here are the five parts:

  • Saving the News From Big Tech

  • To Save the News, We Must Shatter Ad-Tech

  • To Save the News, We Must Ban Surveillance Advertising

  • To Save the News, We Must Open Up App Stores

  • To Save the News, We Need an End-to-End Web

(Image: EFF, CC BY 3.0)

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Backstage at the Haunted Mansion

#10yrsago Here’s that Beastles album you’ve been waiting for!

#10yrsago European Broadcasting Union steps in to keep the Greek national broadcaster on the air after police shut it down

#10yrsago “By His Things Will You Know Him,” a short story

#5yrsago Tanzania’s independent websites, podcasts and video channels have gone dark as the country’s new blogger tax goes into effect

#5yrsago Ranking the most influential computer security papers ever published

#1yrago Regulatory Capture

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW

  • The Bezzle, a Martin Hench noir thriller novel about the prison-tech industry. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, WAITING FOR EDITORIAL REVIEW

  • Vigilant, Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. ON SUBMISSION

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. FIRST DRAFT COMPLETE, ACCEPTED FOR PUBLICATION

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. ON SUBMISSION

Latest podcast: Ideas Lying Around

Recent appearances:

Latest books:

Upcoming books:

  • The Internet Con: A nonfiction book about interoperability and Big Tech, Verso, September 2023

  • The Lost Cause: a post-Green New Deal eco-topian novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias, Tor Books, November 2023

This work – excluding any serialized fiction – is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. That means you can use it any way you like, including commercially, provided that you attribute it to me, Cory Doctorow, and include a link to

Quotations and images are not included in this license; they are included either under a limitation or exception to copyright, or on the basis of a separate license. Please exercise caution.

How to get Pluralistic:

Blog (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Newsletter (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Mastodon (no ads, tracking, or data-collection):

Medium (no ads, paywalled):

(Latest Medium column: "The Shitty Tech Adoption Curve Has a Business Model"

Twitter (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

Tumblr (mass-scale, unrestricted, third-party surveillance and advertising):

"When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla" -Joey "Accordion Guy" DeVilla