Don’t break up Facebook, make it more transparent
The fever pitch over Big Tech’s market dominance culminated with a contentious US Congressional hearing a few months ago. While Google, Apple and Amazon may require new onerous regulation, Facebook’s just desserts are something it fears more than divesting itself from its strategic purchases or having to jump through insane regulatory hoops: mandated transparency.
At July’s US House of Representatives hearing, Members of Congress spent long hours asking a cavalcade of mostly tangential, somewhat nonsensical questions about spam, Twitter, and other such bric-à-brac. One could count the legitimate competition and antitrust questions fielded by four of the most influential men in the world, on two hands. Which, beyond partisan bickering, shows that Facebook’s issue is not one of market dominance, it’s one of secrecy and shadiness.
Most of what Facebook has been credibly accused of is not actually connected to its outsized market dominance. A Facebook without Instagram would have still been willing to do business with Cambridge Analytica, or algorithmically promote fake news in Myanmar. A Facebook without WhatsApp would still have made questionable and biased content removal decisions and violated users’ privacy. Antitrust then seems to be the wrong medicine.
Despite comments to the contrary, Facebook wants regulation. It has reached a level of revenue and stability where it can withstand and adapt to almost anything, unlike its competitors, most of which magnitudes smaller. Significantly, it also knows that the United States government is heavily constrained by the First Amendment and any contortion to circumvent that would probably have its day in court. What it’s afraid of is transparency: about its business incentives, its policies, and generally things it doesn’t have to report to shareholders or regulators.
It took a scandal as big as Cambridge Analytica to get them to be more transparent about their real stance on privacy issues. Relatedly, the attempt at an external watchdog, the much-needed ‘adults in the room’ Oversight Board turned out to be nothing but a faux-judiciary meant to relieve Facebook of living with the consequences of making tough choices. Direct and pointed calls for transparency were drowned out by Facebook’s choir of friendly experts and lawyers extolling the “revolutionary” step taken by the Menlo Park company.
Even keeping its prized possession, its algorithms, shielded from public view, what it can share with the world is more consequential: the process for creating the policies it shoddily enforces. Resisting calls to open up that process in the past, they have instead privileged select few academics with access. Mandated transparency is a fair middle ground between opaqueness and governments attempting to dictate internal choices.
Is transparency really the solution?
Certainly, transparency is not a cure-all. Throughout history, improperly-defined and loosely enforced transparency has been used in the past to successfully hide more than was shared. But that signals we need to get better acquainted with the tool and its limitations: transparency is not a silver bullet that can solve poor privacy, bad business models and profiting from hate and discrimination. It is a just necessary step for a grown-up conversation.
Transparency will alleviate information asymmetry between the company and external stakeholders, like regulators, the media and civil society, which actively keep an eye on Facebook. It will also limit the amount of spin the company can whip up in the face of congressional oversight. Legitimate and non-onerous mandates will create a baseline, and push companies to function in daylight, and lead to clarity about who makes choices about privacy, content, and community policies, and how and why those choices are ultimately made.
If the goal is to just make Facebook suffer to the point of no return, which seems to be a bipartisan perspective gaining steam in and outside Capitol Hill, by all means US policymakers should try and break it up. Make it use its immense resources to fight a case against it, try to take away its immunity via a barrage of petty and certainly frivolous litigation, make it impossible to get ads revenue. But if that doesn’t work and Facebook stays afloat, instead of fixing the glaring issues, they’ve just added on new ones, destabilizing the market, crippling any potential competitor, and creating de facto standards impossible to reach by any well-meaning social media platforms. Mandating baseline transparency is a simple yet very effective way to keep Facebook in particular, and Big Tech in general more accountable and conversely can lead to a better understanding of the problems and even the solution to how we communicate online.
Dr. Morar is a Visiting Scholar at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, a Founding Fellow at the Digital Interest Lab and an Associate Editor for the Journal of Communication Technology.
This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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