It is hard to associate Facebook and most of Big Tech with anything positive right now. Privacy breaches and the Cambridge Analytica scandal led the American Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to fine Facebook $5bn. The fine was a joke. FTC’s decision was seen to be so weak that Facebook’s stock actually rose in the wake of the levy. You know a corporation is a fairly big when a multi-billion dollar fine barely qualifies as pocket change for it. The question most of the world seems to be asking is whether Facebook is perhaps too big?
You will hear arguments that bigness is not a crime, that no company should be punished for being successful. But that is not remotely the point. The only reason the world now thinks that Facebook needs to be curbed is because of its horrendous conduct with the privacy of user data. Earlier this year, we found out that Facebook stored millions of passwords in plain text, visible to thousands of employees. When users signed up for two-factor authentication, Facebook used those numbers for targetted ads. What’s worse is that the $5bn fine is for privacy violations that Facebook has been fined for before by the FTC in 2011. Not only did Facebook’s conduct failed to improve, it actually got worse (read: Cambridge Analytica).
There have been privacy-focused initiatives from within Facebook that help users take more control of their privacy. Facebook recently announced an upcoming feature called ‘Off-Facebook Activity’. The idea is that since Facebook tracks what you do on the Internet even when you are not on Facebook, Off-Facebook Activity will give you an overview of websites and apps that share your information with Facebook. You still can’t delete the information that Facebook collects. However, you can choose to delink that information from your digital profile. It’s not perfect in concept, hasn’t been released yet, and does not do nearly enough to calm concerns around Facebook’s conduct towards user privacy.
This would not have been such a huge problem if Facebook did not have a stronghold on free speech. Facebook (with its acquisition of Instagram and WhatsApp) has a monopoly on social media. Its closest competitors are Snapchat or LinkedIn. So even if people want to quit Facebook, they don’t have anywhere else to go. Zuckerberg has in fact admitted to Facebook’s power on free speech itself, stating, “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly, I agree.”
Facebook’s monopoly means that no matter how horrible their conduct is with user data, they tend to get away with it. This brings us to the question of whether Facebook can be broken up. The idea here is that if Facebook could be unmerged with Instagram and WhatsApp, it would spark competition in privacy practices. Competition in privacy laws would be better for everyone.
There have been calls to do exactly that. The idea of dismantling Big Tech is a key message of United States Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign. Facebook’s own co-founder, Chris Huges, argued for breaking up Facebook too, calling Zuckerberg’s power “unAmerican”. The problem here is that it is a grey area for antitrust laws. It’s unclear whether existing antitrust law is equipped to engender a splitting of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. It’s up to the Justice Department and FTC to determine if a case can be made out for it. Even so, you can rest assured that if the U.S. government wanted to break up Facebook, it would be a lengthy process which might ultimately be unsuccessful. The government tried to break up Microsoft in 1990s, and failed.
The other option here is to have stricter regulation when it comes to privacy. It is certainly the one Facebook prefers. In an Op-ed article for the New York Times published earlier this year, Nick Clegg, a vice president–level staffer at Facebook, called for better accountability through regulation. He emphasised the need for “significant resources and strong new rules” and added that breaking the company up would not resolve the problems of election interference or user privacy.
Of course, Nick Clegg would say that. The problem here is that even if better privacy laws did exist they might not mean much given Facebook’s size and dominion. It could just choose to ignore them as it has in the past and assuage hurt feelings by paying a fine on occasion. Besides, U.S. privacy laws would not apply overseas. People in India would still suffer from privacy violations at the hands of Facebook.
Facebook’s size is not a reason to punish it. However, its conduct toward user privacy is. It might be impossible to break up Facebook, but it is reasonable to demand accountability of it.
If Facebook is to be truly made accountable, Mark Zuckerberg needs to be reined in. You will hear people say that Facebook’s current situation is a failure of capitalism. They will probably say that Big Tech needs big structural changes. They wouldn’t be wrong. Capitalism — and the attention economy, in particular — is not perfect. But, as of now, these are broad sweeping arguments, and not solutions. If Facebook is to be made more accountable, we need to begin with making Zuckerberg more accountable. Zuckerberg currently holds ~60% share on the Facebook board. This means Facebook’s board has no power to keep him accountable. It is advisory at best.
The fix here is that Zuckerberg’s power needs to be regulated. Creating a privacy czar will achieve little if s/he has no power to check Zuckerberg and his decisions. There are ways to accomplish this, none of them are easy.
The most straightforward solution here would be to loosen Zuckerberg’s hold on the board by divesting him of a significant part of his shares. The legal precedent for this may not exist. However, it is only fair as Zuckerberg’s power, as a single man controlling the speech of 2 billion individuals, is unprecedented. It would help the board hold him accountable rather than simply advise. It would also steer clear of setting a precedent of companies being punished for being too successful.
This article was first published in The Hindu.