Should We Regulate Facebook, Twitter and YouTube?

Or enforce anti-trust laws against them?

By Rachel Alexander Published on March 28, 2018

Everyone’s attacking Facebook for the way Cambridge Analytica used user data. Cambridge Analytica served the Trump campaign. That explains a lot of the protest.

Liberals are upset. Conservatives should be too. It’s a bipartisan problem. President Obama’s reelection team did the same thing with Facebook data four years earlier. In fact, they extracted almost five times as much personal data with a cleverly designed app.

On top of that, an eye-popping 44 percent of the U.S. population accesses news on Facebook. Between the way partisan groups can use the data to sway voters, and the way Facebook itself can sway them, what happens on Facebook can affect American elections.

And it gets worse. It affects many other parts of our lives as well. Facebook is constantly collecting data about us and our friends. It then sells the data to advertisers. Facebook and Google share a powerful duopoly on online advertising. Opting out doesn’t necessarily protect people. Facebook admits it has tracked people who weren’t users. It has immense control over what we see, which affects our behavior.

As a result, influential voices call for the federal government to regulate the giant or break it up. There are also calls to regulate Twitter and YouTube. They wield less but similar power over people’s personal data.

Facebook’s Bias

Facebook takes a fairly active role in choosing what content is acceptable and what is not. Although it doesn’t create news, it distributes it. During a panel at the Financial Times‘ Future of News conference in New York City, Facebook’s head of news partnerships, Campbell Brown, said that the social network is “moving in the direction” of accrediting journalists as trusted news sources. The excuse is the number of fake news and extremist sites.

Facebook favors the left over the right.

Richard Gingras, Google’s vice-president of news, objected. He said that approach put freedom of speech at risk. “From a First Amendment perspective we don’t want anybody accrediting who a journalist is,” he said. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said Facebook was “picking winners.” The site created “enormously contested outcomes in the market.”

Even Conservatives Want to Do Something About Facebook

Even conservative voices have joined the call for regulation. Facebook uses vague “community standards” to target them. In the way it implements its policies, Facebook favors the left over the right. Carol Davidsen, a member of Obama’s data team, said that Facebook was “very candid that they allowed us to do things they wouldn’t have allowed someone else to do because they were on our side.”

Eric Wilson, who has worked on GOP political campaigns, said conservatives don’t want increased regulation and antitrust enforcement. However, “Facebook has shown time and again that its leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg himself, aren’t capable of responsibly wielding their immense power and influence in Americans’ lives.”

Breitbart contributor John Nolte observes that when monopolies Ma Bell and the Post Office were our primary sources for communication 35 years ago, they didn’t monitor our mail or phone calls. They didn’t decide who we’d hear from. They didn’t check to see if we were engaging in “hate speech.”

“Monopolies like Facebook should not have the power to purge anyone,” he says. “If you are not breaking the law, you should be left alone.” Facebook is today’s town square — despite the fact it is a private corporation. “Unelected corporations should not be in charge of how we communicate.”

GOP political consultantEric Wilson wrote in Politico: “The most frustrating aspect of dealing with Facebook is its infuriating inconsistency. The platform’s terms of service are a sledgehammer when it needs it, but company executives apply them sparingly and without any clear consistency. Only when Facebook is confronted with the possibility of public scrutiny and bad coverage will it take action to do the right thing.”

If nothing is done, Facebook’s effect on our politics and personal lives could get worse. The company could decide to help one party or group and shut out the others. It could sell your private data to your employer or your insurance company. Or to just anyone who wants to buy it.

What to Do?

Observers have two responses. One side says: Shouldn’t there be a level of consumer protection? Shouldn’t you be able to opt out of being tracked?

The other side asks: Is it really our data? Or is it data about us? And have we really been harmed from the tracking, sale, and use of data? Depending on how you answer these questions may determine the solution.

Some of the proposed regulations appear more reasonable than others. They include limits on the data Facebook can gather from users and sell, and greater oversight and transparency of Facebook’s compliance with federal election laws. Some would break it up into several smaller companies using antitrust laws. They argue that Facebook has an effective monopoly in social media.

One idea is to create a “Digital Citizen’s Bill of Rights.” It would list what a private company can and cannot do with your personal data. The European Union passed something like it, called the General Data Protection Regulation. It goes into effect in May. It gives consumers more control over their personal data and how companies use it.

General purpose laws already cover unfair and deceptive business practices. They are enforced by the Federal Trade Commission and state attorney generals. They could be applied more zealously to social media. Privacy laws in a couple of states block a popular selfie tool in Facebook’s Arts & Culture app which matches people’s photos to historical artwork.

If you break up Facebook, where do you stop? Apple and Google have over 99 percent of the global market for smartphones. They too collect personal data and sell it. Amazon has a huge amount of data about us, although they don’t sell it. What about other industries that are arguably worse, where the government grants or contributes to partial monopolies? They include cable television, phone service, the airline industry, oil and gas, aluminum and steel and pharmaceuticals.

Alternatives to Government Intervention

Maybe the free market can break down Facebook. The government tried to break up IBM using antitrust laws and failed. Competition eventually ended the company’s large share of the personal computer market. The government almost broke up Microsoft in the 1990s. It turned out the laws didn’t apply. Apple stepped up its efforts and became a viable competitor for operating systems. Microsoft’s browser Internet Explorer once dominated the market. Google’s Chrome and other browsers took it down.

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The movement to #deleteFacebook got some steam this week when SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk deleted both companies’ Facebook pages. Since so many people depend on Facebook, this won’t be realistic.

Facebook does eventually react to criticism when it gets really loud. It will adapt in order to avoid damage to its reputation. One way or another, Facebook needs to change the way it works. It needs to set up apps so users know their data’s getting harvested. Apps shouldn’t be allowed to access private messages.

It’s a multi-faceted problem. There isn’t one quick easy fix.


Follow Rachel on Twitter at Rach_IC.

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