‘His power is unprecedented and un-American’. Words that are often used to describe autocrats were used by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes in a recent op-ed in the New York Times. He called for breaking up the social media giant, Facebook and asked the Federal Trade Commission to reverse Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram. We look as to why Chris, who helped Mark Zuckerberg develop Facebook 15 years ago in his Harvard dorm, is calling for such drastic measures.
The reputations of the social media giant, and its principal founder Mark Zuckerberg, have recently taken a nosedive. This has been the result of a series of incidents including Facebook’s slow response to Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, and several revelations on how the platform was, at the bare minimum, grossly negligent in policing the spread of fake information that led to violence, and even genocide across several parts of the world. Just last month, it was revealed that Facebook stored passwords of tens of millions of users in plain text format, making them accessible to thousands in the company – with serious ramifications on user privacy.
A democracy is built on the principles of checks and balances, that power should not be concentrated towards one person or any one institution. Facebook, however, tells another story. Since Mark Zuckerberg owns most of the controlling shares, he can effectively alone decide what the News Feed algorithm shows the users, what constitutes as hate speech or just merely offensive, with no internal or external check. Earlier this week, an altered video of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the US House of Representatives, went viral on social media. It was altered to slur her speech and make it look like she was drunk. Facebook declined to remove it initially and only as outrage grew, did it agree to notify users that the ‘video may have been altered’. But as of writing this article, it did not agree to growing demands of removing the video altogether.
Censorship and restraint policies of Facebook haven’t come under scrutiny for the first time. In 2017, Mark Zuckerberg admitted during a Vox interview to have personally made the decision to delete the private messages of Facebook users encouraging genocide in Myanmar. This brought to the public fore Facebook’s ability to alter private messages and data of any groups of individuals based on any criteria that the company itself determined – raising the question of data ownership afresh. While many understand Facebook as a social utility for people to share photos of their weddings – legally Facebook has argued for protections u/s 230 of the US Communications Decency Act (CDA).
Section 230 was a remarkable piece of legislation that was geared towards ensuring that nascent internet service providers – back when it was enacted in 1996 – were protected from the hassle of policing, and independently verifying every content that they published. Unlike say, a newspaper, section 230 allows publishers of “interactive computer services” to be indemnified against content provided by individual users. This means that for any content posted by users like us on Facebook, Instagram, or other such services, is solely our responsibility and Facebook would not be held liable for either its accuracy, or its ramifications. The idea behind this provision was to ensure that the then small scale internet companies which were still finding their feet did not have to devote resources of an immense magnitude – the sort used by publication houses – to stay on the right side of the law. It was also a response to the technological limitations of the time, which prevented mass verification of content at low costs.
However, the technological landscape has evolved significantly since 1996, and companies like Facebook have evolved from being tiny dorm-managed enterprises to technological behemoths with billions of dollars at their disposal. Furthermore, Facebook is no longer a normal publisher of content. Its algorithms now decide minute aspects of the content as well – including the fact that whether you see a wedding photo, a news article from a reputed source, or a call to kill. In other words, it’s deciding values for the society. Given that Facebook – and its technological siblings – now have the technological capacity and the financial resources, to effectively police fake or doctored content at the very minimum, a legitimate question can be raised on the efficacy of section 230. The spate of organised violence and rising societal apathy to preventing it has been seen in its most dangerous manifestations in Myanmar. The damage done through falsified content percolated through Facebook, and its platforms like WhatsApp, Instagram, etc., can be seen in socially sanctioned violence in India, Philippines, Brazil, and a number of other countries. Furthermore, the story of Facebook’s incompetence in controlling the impact of Russian propaganda during the US elections is so well documented that it doesn’t need to be documented. Such a far-reaching and damaging impact should alone be enough to warrant Facebook’s classification as a distinct social entity for the purposes of legislation, and a consequent carving out from section 230.
Facebook's Market Capitalization over the years. Source: macrotrends.com.
The second issue is that of privacy. While Mark Zuckerberg’s Vox interview merely highlighted a known technological capacity, its defence in courts was more telling. A Law360 report pointed out that in a submission to a US District Judge Facebook argued that,
"There is no invasion of privacy at all, because there is no privacy."
In relation to the sharing of data with third party actors, Facebook argued that there was “no reasonable expectation of privacy” and therefore the same could not be assumed to have been violated, a CNET report highlighted.
The problem with regulating tech companies like Facebook is that most of them treat such offences as speeding tickets for which the best way forward was to pay up and move on. For instance, after the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, in which Facebook allowed the company to collect data from millions of users without their knowledge, the company’s business end simply took it as granted that it would have to pay up around USD 5 billion for its negligence. When this fine – the largest ever on any company – was eventually slapped on Facebook, its shares rose by 7% because this was seen as being in line with market expectations. By the end of the day, despite a $5bn fine, Facebook had added over USD 30 billion to its value. This is not an exception. The revenues involved in the age of data monetization are so vast that even the largest conceivable fines do not cut the ice anymore. More importantly, speculative value of data is on a rising curve, therefore, any fine seems justified in the larger scheme of things to investors – making it possible for these companies to evade all regulatory authority. The business end of the equation is no longer worried about the force of oversight, and that has created a reward cycle for laxity, wilful and otherwise.
Facebook has also had a history of taking over companies that seem to be getting popular and that might invade their own space. Facebook has used its influence and power to shut down companies or simply copy their technologies and integrate it with their features. Instagram and WhatsApp were not churning out loads of money before, but they were gaining a lot of traction in the mobile space, where Facebook seemed to be lacking. Taking over Instagram meant that it dominated the photo sharing network, and WhatsApp meant that it could enter the new real-time messaging industry. Facebook blocked Vine from hosting a tool that lets it users search for their Facebook friends on the platform, pretty much spelling the doom for the video sharing platform.
All this means is that a competitor start-up is doomed from the beginning. It is going to have a hard time matching the tech of Facebook, and even if it gets traction, investors would be sceptical of investing in it. Despite the boom in Silicon Valley to invest in more tech start-ups, investors would not invest in a social media one because eventually its going to be acquired by Facebook for a sum or Facebook will just copy its technology.
Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg.
Elizabeth Warren, in what is perhaps the strongest position taken by a candidate in the US Presidential Election, has called for the giant tech companies to be broken up. Referencing the 1990 battle against Microsoft, she said,
“The companies have used their resources and control over the way we use the Internet to squash small businesses and innovation, and substitute their own financial interests for the broader interests of the American people."
Warren’s proposal includes a plan to pass legislation designating platforms with more than $25 billion in revenue as “platform utilities,” which would be barred from owning both the platform and “participants” on the platform at the same time. Smaller companies would not face the same requirements. A law like that would have immediate effects on the digital economy, the proposal continues, as Google is forced to spin off Search and Amazon spins off Marketplace.
The precedence to take on big tech companies exists already. In 1998, the United States Department of Justice and a coalition of State Attorney Generals sued the giant Microsoft for violating antitrust law. Microsoft had missed the internet’s early boom in the 1990s, but in 1995 when it came out with its own browser, Internet Explorer, it hassled and cajoled companies to make it the default web browser. The fear was that Microsoft would kill companies like Netscape, that had a browser that was becoming popular, and almost monopolize the internet industry to come. Going after Bill Gates was far from a popular move at that time. He as widely seen as the tech visionary and a genius. After an years long fight, the government won the case. Well, partially. Even though Microsoft was not broken up like the government wanted, Microsoft did settle out of court and agree to go through series of behavioural remedies - agreements to prevent unwanted behavior. Microsoft and Gates lived on largely. But the government had sent a tough message to the tech world.
Antitrust laws are largely focused on the price the consumers pay. They have become fixated that the only real harm exists when a company tries to unfairly raise prices for consumers. But we don’t pay for social media directly. We don’t pay for Facebook with our credit card, but with our data and our time. The companies can track our screen time, behavioural pattern and these are far more valuable than a signed check. Perhaps the greatest example of Facebook’s power is that when Mark Zuckerberg was asked by the US Senate to name Facebook’s biggest competitor, Mark was silent. That’s because it doesn’t have a competitor. A lawsuit was brought against Microsoft because Netscape had a browser that was popular, and it saw Microsoft trying to gain a monopoly. But when Facebook’s competitors are either acquired by it or killed altogether, the responsibility falls on the government to act and protect its citizens from being exploited.
Facebook Co-Founder Chris Hughes
The people at Facebook are human, and it is this very humanity that makes it necessary for them to be regulated. It needs to happen now. Facebook, Google and other giants are going big on research and investment in Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality. The next generation of tech has the power to get out of hand very quickly. It is imperative that we break these monopolies down and establish some oversight over their use before it’s too late.
“I take responsibility for not sounding the alarm earlier.”
Perhaps these are the most alarming words Chris Hughes (pictured above) writes in his op-ed. All this means is that Facebook is no longer a start-up, a social utility, or even a publisher. The time has come to face the reality that Facebook is now an empire panning the world, and with dangerous powers over its citizens. The time has come for the sun to set on the Zuckerberg Empire.
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About the Author
Akshat Jain is a second year student of Bachelors in Technology from Manipal University Jaipur. Originally from Delhi, he is an avid debater and has participated in numerous Model United Nations conferences all over the country. A West Wing fan, he likes reading and decoding social issues, and public policy. Previously, he has worked with the healthcare venture PeeSafe, in addition to The Kirat Youth Foundation, and Kairo Guard.