A recent New York Times Op-ed by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes argues that the company has become both profoundly anti-competitive and obsessed with furthering its dominance of social media. This has impeded innovation in the sector – for almost eight years no major social networking company has been founded – and effectively given Mark Zuckerberg “unilateral control over speech.” Hughes warns that “There is no precedent for his ability to monitor, organize, and even censor the conversations of two billion people.”
Facebook has weathered its recent data-sharing, fake news, hate-speech and privacy scandals with surprisingly few consequences. When, in April, the US Federal Trade Commission announced a likely fine of up to US$5 billion the company’s stock actually increased since the market correctly read this as a slap on the wrist. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook; three-quarters of them visit the site daily. This gives some sense of the responsibilities and challenges which face a would-be regulator.
Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications quickly countered Hughes’s Op-Ed with a statement that said the company accepted the need for greater accountability. But he argued that this could “only be achieved through the painstaking introduction of new rules for the internet.” Clegg added “That is exactly what Mark Zuckerberg has called for. Indeed, he is meeting Government leaders this week to further that work.”
In a wry comment the antitrust scholar Zephyr Teachout noted that Zuckerberg’s response was essentially: “To rebut the claim I am too powerful, I will have the former UK Deputy Prime Minister publicly disavow his prior anti-monopoly stance (now that he is paid by me) and promise to meet with other world leaders to painstakingly tell them what regulation suits me best.” Undoubtedly Facebook is keen to head off one of Hughes’s key recommendations, that the FTC reexamine the acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp and insist that they function independently.
Why does all of this matter? Mainly because a tiny handful of men now control the platforms through which most of the world receives its news and entertainment, searches for and buys products, and communicates its innermost thoughts and desires. As private entities these companies remain almost entirely unaccountable for failing to maintain their users’ privacy or ensuring the integrity of their content. Driven by profit motives, they deny responsibility for the digital platforms they manage while, nevertheless, extracting extraordinarily lucrative rents from them. The scale and reach of these companies, the consequences of their neglect or abuse of their algorithms and data, means that nobody who uses these services can remain indifferent to how Facebook (and, by extension, Amazon, Apple, Google and Netflix) is held to account for its disruptions to our cultural, political and economic landscapes.