Sunday July 03, 2022

An insidious presence

October 12, 2021

There are fundamental questions of society that strike at the heart of Facebook’s business model that need more rigorous analysis than a couple of one-off company statements. Should a company be able to monetise information that people provide for free in order to maintain their social networks? Should political information be treated differently than commercial information and how? Is advertising the only model for funding social networks? What obligations do these companies have to societies or markets where they are not registered and yet still want to profit from? These are philosophical questions about the nature of society after the digital era that cannot be papered over by empty rhetoric about economic growth.

Indeed, history is replete with examples of corporations that grow too large and have too much influence and the knock-on effect that this has on societies, particularly when they collapse. But Facebook’s own history is full of warning signs that the company’s financial growth has outpaced its comprehension of its social responsibilities.

Early in 2021, there was a widespread backlash when the company made it easier for information to be shared between WhatsApp and Facebook. Users resisted the change by migrating from the platform to competitors like Signal and Telegram, forcing the company to backtrack on the threat that anyone who rejected the new terms of service would lose functionality on the application.

Consider that many of Facebook’s users are in the West, but WhatsApp is only now growing in popularity there; conversely, millions of users in the developing world use WhatsApp, but do not have Facebook accounts. This suggests that a large number of the people who are using WhatsApp primarily as a messaging platform are not interested in having it integrated into their Facebook profiles, if they have any.

It was an ill-advised data grab that underscored that the tech giant’s growth strategy was out of step with what people wanted it for.

Haugen said that she did not believe that the company needed to be broken up, but European regulators disagree. In 2020, the European Commission proposed a set of content policies designed to make Big Tech companies more accountable for the harms that were incubated on their platforms, promising fines of six percent of global revenues and expanding anti-trust fines of up to 10 percent of future revenues, as well as forcing the platforms to sell parts of their business if they continue to violate the rules.

The companies – including Amazon, Twitter, Google and Facebook – resisted the policy proposals although they did offer to work with regulators to find alternatives. The alternatives have been slow to come.

If asked, most people probably would not want all their information centralised, monetised and transformed the way Facebook and other social networking sites are doing now.

Excerpted: ‘Facebook and the future we don’t want to live in’