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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

How Consumer Reports is fighting to save democracy 

October 20, 2022 | By Bryson Masse—Independent Journalist @Bryson_M

Publishers and consumers are on the same side in a fight against gatekeepers wielding market power through inscrutable algorithms, says Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports. Her new book, Buyer Aware, explores the promise of today’s connected products and the many predatory practices and commonplace data harvesting and unacceptable risk.

“The marketplace is changing so dramatically, and so rapidly, but the balance of power has shifted away from consumers. I really wanted to kind of reveal to consumers: what does this new marketplace look like? What protections and rights do you have?” said Tellado in a phone interview. 

Consumer respect

That’s where her new book Buyer Aware comes in. Tellado weaves together a history of previous consumer advocacy success stories with the challenges people face today while trying to navigate a world where the gatekeepers of the digital media prefer profit over privacy and attention over accuracy. 

“Consumer Reports has been around for 86 years. We’re incredibly proud of the consumer rights and protections that we’ve been able to forge with and for consumers. But the reality is, that many of those things do not translate into the digital space. Technology has raced so far ahead of us,” said Tellado.

All of these threads speak to the premise of the book: that the right of consumers to fair marketplaces be deemed equivalent to people’s civil rights – instead of being an afterthought, as it often feels. Tellado says we’ve reached a critical moment on the frontier of consumer protection, one where Consumer Reports is in a position to be highly instrumental. Throughout the brand’s history, the ongoing efforts of its team has led to accountability in the market. And today’s market is in need of increased accountability. 

Publishers implicated in today’s issues

While Buyer Aware includes an overview of the state of financial scams (it’s bad), a status report of today’s latest safety issues and industry responses (also not great), a large portion of the book is dedicated to the threat of big tech’s market power and the misinformation in the media ecosystem. These are two issues in which the publishing industry is directly intertwined – Consumer Reports included.

“What many [media companies] are struggling with, is that we’re in an age where we have monopoly platforms that are essentially gatekeepers,” said Tellado. “They stand between us and the consumers we’re trying to reach.”

Tellado says the digital market doesn’t have the standards, the rules, and the guidelines to sufficiently protect consumers from exploitation. And she points out that publishers are at the mercy of search engine optimization and algorithms which ingrain society’s biases. Certainly, consumer rights are important for society. But she says that even beyond this, fundamental American values are at stake. 

“Writing the book was also a way to tell a larger story about our democracy, that it can only really thrive if you have a fair and just marketplace. Those two things are incredibly connected.” However, the main thing that Tellado wants readers to take away is that there are constructive paths forward.

She points to the emergence and vilification of “hipster anti-trust” as the force which shouldn’t be underestimated through patronizing nicknames. With Lina Khan’s ascension at the Federal Trade Commission, the potential of real action taken against the big tech giants is palpable. Tellado also endorses the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act helmed by Minnesota Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar as a legislative solution. 

Equipping consumers with tools

In a very on-brand “consumer-empowerment” move at the end of each chapter, Tellado suggests ways an average person could shield themselves from perils found in the previous pages. To combat big tech’s extensive reach over people’s private data, Tellado recommends people reduce the amount they hand over. More innovative options for people to leverage are found after following a QR-coded weblink. Consumer Reports has developed online tools people can use to protect themselves. For example, they offer an app that reveals the information companies collect from individuals.

Perhaps this seems ironic considering how much the book pins on other digital systems. But that’s the point: these new marketplaces are a reflection of how our digital tools are used, not that they’re inherently bad. Despite the risks, the work by Consumer Reports and its peers in the media space show us there is a flag to rally around in defense of the rights of the consumer.