June 14, 2019

WHAT IS TO BE DONE ABOUT FACEBOOK? From Christine Rosen of Commentary, with a mention of Glenn’s new book:

Like the break up of AT&T in the 20th century, which led to further innovations in the telecommunications industry, a breakup of Facebook could spur innovation and competition in the social-media landscape and end Facebook’s unfair exercise of monopoly power. Facebook has made it impossible for competition to flourish. Even if half of Facebook’s users closed their accounts tomorrow, they would have nowhere else to go. We need legitimate alternatives to Facebook.

Fearful of anti-trust action, Facebook executives have taken to raising the threat of Chinese social-media companies as an argument against breakup or regulation. In an interview in May on CNBC, Sheryl Sandberg claimed Facebook was committed to earning back people’s trust but also warned, “While people are concerned with the size and power of tech companies, there’s also a concern in the United States with the size and power of Chinese companies, and the realization that those companies are not going to be broken up.”

But raising the specter of WeChat is a distraction. Anti-trust action such as requiring Facebook to relinquish control of Instagram and WhatsApp wouldn’t mean the destruction of those services or a takeover of the social-media sector by Chinese companies. It would mean the beginning of genuine competition. Competition would blunt the worst tendencies of Facebook while continuing to protect free-speech rights. As Glenn Harlan Reynolds argues in his new book, The Social Media Upheaval, many of the problems created by social-media platforms, such as polarization and disinformation, could be solved with competition. “If Twitter or Facebook were competing with five or ten other similar services, or maybe even two or three,” Reynolds writes, “this sort of thing would be more likely to damp out, after the fashion of the old, loosely coupled blogosphere.” Competition would also “promote greater attention to matters of privacy, algorithmic integrity, and so on because users could more easily leave for another service.”

This is a solution that would remove the free-speech questions inevitable in any attempt to moderate content on these platforms—in practice, even with sophisticated A.I., an impossible task given the scale of platforms like Facebook.

Second, the United States needs stronger data-privacy and -protection laws, including laws that grant users access to the data dossiers that Facebook has compiled on them and the option to deny Facebook the ability to share that data with third parties unless explicit permission (as opposed to byzantine terms of service agreements) is given. There are plentiful models for such laws, most notably data- and privacy-protection laws now in force in Europe. Another proposal would have Facebook safeguard user information the same way that other “information fiduciaries” such as lawyers and medical providers and financial advisers do for their clients, and face fines and other punishments if it did not.

Third, we need stronger and more consistent enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission of existing agreements it has signed with Facebook and harsher punishments when Facebook is found to be in breach of those agreements (which, if history is any guide, will be often). The time for symbolic punishments and slaps on the wrist and weakly enforced consent agreements is long past. At the beginning of June, the FTC announced that it was planning an anti-trust investigation of Facebook, which suggests that Facebook’s long honeymoon period with regulators might finally be over.

As Rosen notes, the end of that honeymoon has been a long time coming, and is extremely well-deserved. Lengthy, but well worth a read.

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