Facebook is holding the world hostage.Here are the ways we might stop it:
Given Facebook went down for most of Monday, our national reserves of baseless conspiracy theories may be running dangerously low. So let’s add this one to the mix: Facebook took itself offline at a moment of great political peril, with whistleblower Frances Haugen about to testify to Congress, to prove to the world how much we’ve come to rely on its services.
That’s not true, of course; the latest information we have suggests the cause was a configuration error on the company’s routers. But the outcome was the same. While the schadenfreude game on Twitter and late-night TV was strong, millions around the planet suffered. WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014, has become an especially indispensable communication tool in South America, India and Africa, where huge majorities of the population use it daily. The cost to businesses who rely on Facebook Marketplace and Instagram was incalculable, as was the effect on newspapers, nonprofits, advertisers, and all kinds of event planners.
This is the state of Facebook products in 2021: Our increasingly online society can’t live with them and it can’t live without them. The social network maddens us — literally. As Haugen’s documents confirm, the algorithm is making us angrier so we’ll stay on it longer and look at more ads.
But we keep using Facebook or Messenger or Instagram or WhatsApp anyway, because who can make their friends and family and favorite artists switch services en masse? Facebook is a monopoly like no other: enforced every day by peer pressure (even if those peers might individually prefer to stop using it). The need for our social species to connect as widely and efficiently as possible is just too strong.
As Haugen says, Zuckerberg, who retains full control of Facebook, is not a fundamentally evil person. The most in-depth book on his recent history suggest that he’s merely out of his depth, easily manipulated, and obsessed with burying bad news (which is why there was a trove of damning internal reports, ripe for leaking). And yet here he is, effectively holding the world hostage to the whims of server farms.
It might not be so bad if Zuckerberg had left Instagram and WhatsApp well enough alone, as Google did with the largely independent YouTube. But he decided putting all his eggs in one technological basket would be worth more to the company and, well, here we are, learning that the company that rules the world was so tightly controlled by its servers that employees couldn’t even get into their own HQ.
The situation feels untenable. How long will we allow Emperor Zuck to remain on his throne of incompetence, staggering from crisis to crisis, before we the people step in? He may seem unassailable now; so once did John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates. We have a history of deposing titans when they become tyrants. There is bipartisan support, in Congress as in the U.S., for regulating or reforming Facebook. Meanwhile, there are signs that users are starting to rebel, especially among younger generations fleeing to Snapchat and TikTok, and Facebook knows it is extremely vulnerable to these competing platforms.
Haugen’s revelations may be the catalyst — a “Big Tobacco” moment for the tech industry, in the words of one Senator. But the conditions for change have been building for some time. That change could look like anything from a small tweak to a fully rambunctious revolution. Here’s a shortlist of possible outcomes:
1. Congress or the courts rein it in:
Technically, the federal government, in the form of the FTC, is already trying to break up Facebook (with the assistance of 48 state Attorneys General). But proving the company’s monopolistic behavior is an uphill struggle—especially when the feds’ case has already been thrown out on a technicality, resubmitted, and now subjected to another bid by Facebook lawyers to throw it out, which won’t be resolved until 2022.
If we’re lucky, the court may restrict Facebook from buying more social media companies; if we’re really lucky, the judge may insist Facebook impose a firewall between its services … at some point later this decade.
That leaves Congress — the body that’s supposed to write new laws when new technological entities are doing abhorrent things, but it isn’t clear they run afoul of old laws. But what new law does Congress — this deadlocked one especially — have the stomach to impose on Facebook?
The House Judiciary Committee sent the American Innovation and Choice Online Act to the House floor this summer, one of a number of bills seeking to update antitrust laws. In theory, that mouthful of an act would force tech giants not to favor their own products. In practice, the timetable for a House vote isn’t known, and it’s anyone’s guess whether such a bill could get past the filibuster threshold of 60 votes in the Senate, or pass muster when Facebook inevitably tests it in court.
2. Congress breaks it up — WhatsApp first:
But perhaps in the wake of Monday’s disastrous outage, there is now the appetite for another kind of legislation. Senator Elizabeth Warren has been calling for the breakup of Facebook since 2019, though her complicated plan involved designating it a “platform utility,” then the president appointing regulators to look into reversing the acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram.
(Not that this carries much legal weight, but they’d probably have support from the founders of the acquired companies. Both Instagram’s and WhatsApp’s founders reportedly left when Zuckerberg reneged on promises of independence for their platforms.)
A simpler, compromise version, then: legislation forcing Facebook to sell WhatsApp, or at least to fence it off from Facebook servers and interference. Given how vital it is to the communication of 2 billion people around the planet, WhatsApp clearly qualifies as an essential service, perhaps even a matter of national security.
Facebook already seems to know it can’t act as Zuckerberg would like when it comes to WhatsApp — witness it backtracking on an ominous change to WhatsApp terms and conditions earlier this year. At this stage, Zuck may be all too happy to have the government take it off its hands, pay him for the privilege, and let the fiercely independent 2 billion users be someone else’s problem. Facebook has been looking for brownie points from regulators; giving up WhatsApp would certainly do the trick.
3. Transparency, please:
Whistleblower Frances Haugen is not in favor of breaking up Facebook. (This is surprising given a long line of ex-Facebook employees coming out as pro-breakup — a line that starts with co-founder Chris Hughes.) “These systems are going to continue to exist and be dangerous even if broken up,” Haugen explained to Congress Tuesday. Strike it down, in other words, and Facebook could become more dangerous than you can possibly imagine.
Haugen predicted that if split, Instagram would make more money than Facebook — which anyone who’s seen the increasing amount of ads on the photo-sharing service in recent months can well believe. The upshot: Facebook would be forced to compete with the split service, which would likely draw resources away from barely funded groups like Haugen’s own (now dispersed) Civic Integrity unit. Few would be left to do the vital work of making sure the Facebook algorithm isn’t being manipulated by bad actors, or too geared towards extreme, outrageous content. Facebook would become even more of a trash fire.
So what’s the solution, Frances? Her answer is worth quoting at length (emphasis mine):
Facebook wants to trick you into thinking that privacy protections or changes to Section 230 alone will be sufficient. While important, these will not get to the core of the issue, which is that no one truly understands the destructive choices made by Facebook except Facebook. We can afford nothing less than full transparency. As long as Facebook is operating in the shadows, hiding its research from public scrutiny, it is unaccountable. Until the incentives change, Facebook will not change.
In other words, Facebook may need a dose of sunlight to stay honest. Think a Freedom Of Information Act that allows researchers full access to the social network’s entire range of internal studies on demand. That seems like an easy lift, even for our sclerotic Congress.
4. Revolt of the users:
If all else fails, folks, it’s up to us. We can quit Facebook and its attendant services en masse with enough coordination. For example, if a wily developer builds a social network with all the same features as Facebook, but with an open-source structure, with data control and accountability baked in to the core — well, the exodus could begin at any time. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, Ministry For the Future, the eponymous agency kills off the tech giants by building an entirely new, more reliable internet where users have permanent encryption locks on their data.
But the migration doesn’t have to be quite so dramatic. Big change starts with small habits. You could choose one Facebook service per month (Messenger is probably the easiest to start with) and see how many friends you can convince to join you on a more secure alternative (in this case, Signal).
Take heart from the experience of WhatsApp’s 2 billion pushing back against changes to the service: We Facebook users, we hostages, are together more powerful than Zuckerberg can possibly imagine. And that’s no conspiracy theory.
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