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Brislen on Tech: Facebook faces the music

Paul Brislen, Editor. 11 December 2020, 2:19 pm

Of all the things you could sue Facebook for - breaking decency laws, ignoring user driven take-down requests, copyright violations, privacy violations, inciting violence, live-streaming of violence, distributing extremist content, tax issues and of course encouraging genocide - the US government has decided that it will act on anti-monopoly provisions and claims that Facebook is abusing its position in the market.

Good grief.

It's almost as if the US government doesn't really understand what Facebook does, how it does it or what the real issues are, but it knows people are mad as hell so it'll have a crack at regulating it the old fashioned way.

Facebook bought WhatsApp and Instagram (and it did so with regulatory approval) and has grown from strength to strength since then. Now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is going to argue that Facebook is to be split up.

Breaking Up

The last time the FCC did that on this scale it took the companies that had spawned from Bell (a company set up by the inventor of the telephone himself who actually got to capitalise on his own invention - something that rarely happens throughout history) and forced AT&T to sell them off. That was in 1982 and took a couple of years to complete. Fast forward to the 21st century and those regional telephony companies have amalgamated back together again in the form of Verizon and AT&T.

Doing something similar to Facebook would result in three very strong operators each in their own niches continuing to dominate those niches because social media platforms are natural monopolies. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Instagram, Pintrest and even the newcomers like TikTok all have a different take on a social media user's needs and they don't compete with each other very much at all. How many of us have multiple accounts on multiple platforms to keep up with different groups or issues in different ways? Breaking up Facebook won't change that at all.

Instead, the regulators need to look deeper into Facebook's operating model, at its claims around how many clicks each ad gets, how much it charges advertisers, how it manages user-driven complaints about abuse, how it encourages users towards ever more extreme content, how it ignores privacy, defamation, copyright and other regionally variable pieces of legislation and then we might have something worth talking about.

Of course, that's not likely to happen when you look at the calibre of the congressional hearings or the types of questions being put to the founders and CEOs of the world's largest social media companies. Until the politicians understand what these companies do, what danger they represent and why they need to act, I fear we're going to be spending a lot of time on lawyers and the outcome will be meaningless at best.

It's a shame, because social media has a huge potential to be so much more than an advertising platform. It's an idea that is pretty idealistic and pure but at its heart, social media is about enabling creativity and encouraging connections and community building. It's about bringing people together in a way that wasn't possible previously.

I've seen it work tremendously well from the individual connections you can make or rekindle through to charitable support (if you'd like to donate to The Aunties let me know and I'll hook you up), lost toys returned to desperate owners and so much more. You can find your tribe online - the vertical integration allows you to connect with anyone who shares your views, your hobbies, your values regardless of where you are in the world. You need never be isolated or alone again.

But unfortunately that's treated as a byproduct, not the core proposition, and between the influencers, the brand ambassadors, the liars and charlatans and the disinformation professionals, and the companies themselves with a greed for ever more revenue and a constant demand for growth, the poor old users are squashed into boxes and fed a steady diet of fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Now if we could regulate that, I'd be a happy camper.


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