Let’s Save Face(book)
To: Mr. Mark Zuckerberg
1 Hacker Way
Menlo Park, Calif.
Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:
We’re willing to bet that when you sat in your dorm room 15 years ago, you had no idea you would become widely reviled. Undergraduate males in most colleges and universities used to look forward to reviewing the pictures of new students (with particular emphasis on new undergraduate females) in booklets—called “face books”—distributed during the first week of classes. But the Zuckerberg dorm room, with help from a few other undergraduate males, eventually came up with an online version of these face books, complete with the ability to contact and share messages beyond the confines of the ivy-covered walls of academia.
Facebook now faces a wall of intense criticism from seemingly every angle. The Federal Trade Commission is currently negotiating a multibillion fine for violations of an earlier consent decree. Various federal legislators (many of them running for president) have demanded that Facebook be broken up. Add Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes to that list.
Critics of Facebook claim that the control of an entire industry—in this case, social media—by one individual is an unprecedented threat. At other points in our history, critics have made exactly the same point about Standard Oil, various railroads, the Hearst newspaper chain, Microsoft, and perhaps to come, Boeing. But, like a politician running every two years, it is said that this time is different.
Facebook critics, frequently unversed in antitrust law, will point to the attempted breakups of AT&T and Microsoft as examples of successful government antitrust intervention. Technological innovation in the form of Wi-Fi, the internet, and streaming video have done more than government ever could to change AT&T. Today, landline competition is still basically a duopoly, and the biggest competition AT&T faces comes from Netflix, Apple, and Disney.
The government sued Microsoft, in essence, to save Netscape and other emerging browser technologies from dominance by Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. A meaningless consent decree was the result of that trial. My guess is that nobody reading this column still uses Netscape. It was purchased by AOL (ha!) and rebranded as Mozilla. Nor did Microsoft’s internet browser become the dominant browser on the internet. Most tech analysts put Google and Safari (owned by Apple) ahead of Microsoft; again, technological innovation outran the government. Government moves at the approximate speed of the Lambert-Fisher Glacier; technology moves at warp speed.
Testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee established that Facebook was key in spreading false and incendiary misinformation to more than 100 million Americans prior to the 2016 election. This has led many critics, including presidential candidates, to suggest that we need a new government agency to monitor content spread by social media platforms. Americans are too smart to think that government is the solution. We have the First Amendment in this country, and, in fact, our whole history of intellectual property innovation (including Facebook) is the progeny of our dedication to free speech.
It is not First Amendment-violative, nor is it overreaching, to suggest that political content be labeled with regard to its source. The second “evil” attributable to Facebook is its predictive analytics, which it basically gets free of charge by data mining all of its users’ various interactions. This is the highly valuable resource that Facebook collects for sale to advertisers and political groups like Cambridge Analytica. Breaking up Facebook using the Sherman Act would not solve this problem.
But there are effective solutions. Both the European Union and the State of California have adopted legislation to allow individuals to control their own data. You may recall when you signed up for Facebook (or Google and other tech companies that data mine) that you signed a long, hard-to-read, multipage document that you scrolled through without reading to get to the “accept” button at the bottom of the screen. That indecipherable and unread document contained waivers that allowed that company to use any data from your transactions in its sale to third parties. (News flash to attorneys general: These forms do not generally meet the standard of your state’s plain language statute.).
We need legislation that goes a bit further. If data mining companies like Facebook had to get your affirmative consent on an annual basis to use and sell your transaction data, many of these abuses would disappear. If, in addition to getting your annual consent, these companies were required to show you online what use they have made of your data, to whom it has been sold, and for what purpose, competition with other data mining companies would police these abuses.
Facebook does not need to be broken up. If we violate the First Amendment, the next wave of innovation very likely would not occur in this country, but perhaps in the dormitories of countries where freedom of expression is celebrated.
For those still concerned that Facebook is too intrusive, one great solution remains: Unlike the government, you can always turn Facebook off.
Vance K. Opperman
Not on Facebook
Vance K. Opperman
is owner and CEO of MSP
Communications, which publishes
Twin Cities Business.