Facebook’s Outage Shows We Need Antitrust Action Now

On Monday, a global service outage hit Facebook and took down the world’s ubiquitous social network , along with Instagram and WhatsApp. The outage, which affects billions of people, occurred just as Facebook filed a motion to dismiss the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s amended antitrust complaint against the company accusing it of acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp to consolidate anti-competitive market power. 

The day before the outage, on Sunday, the Facebook whistleblower behind devastating leaks that have roiled the company for weeks revealed themselves on “60 Minutes”: Frances Haugen, a former product manager. In profiles of Haugen that followed immediately after, one thread constantly revisited was that Haugen did not want to harm Facebook, only fix it. 

The Wall Street Journal said the last time she went on Workplace, Facebook’s internal website, she typed a final message into the search bar, knowing it would be logged. “I don’t hate Facebook,” she wrote. “I love Facebook. I want to save it.”

To that end, Haugen turned over files to state attorney generals, journalists, and filed a Securities and Exchange Commission whistleblower complaint that accused Facebook of misleading investors by lying to the public. Notably, Haugen did not share documents with the Federal Trade Commission, which has been pursuing antitrust action against Facebook since antitrust scholar Lina Khan was appointed as chair.

“The path forward is about transparency and governance,” Haugen said in a video posted by Whistleblower Aid on Sunday. “It’s not about breaking up Facebook.” The founder of Whistleblower Aid, John Tye, told the New York Times that Haugen “generally does not see antitrust as the most important policy approach.” Instead, Tye said, she “wants to see meaningful regulatory reform focused on transparency and accountability.”

It is hard to reconcile that viewpoint with the reality of the current situation: for the past decade, Facebook has not simply had a deleterious effect on the general public, but established itself as the major if not sole conduit for internet activity across the world with a series of ruthless acquisitions that are now under scrutiny for breaking antitrust law. At the time of writing, people around the world are being affected in numerous, sometimes serious, ways due to Facebook being down. For many of them, Facebook being down is the same as “the internet” being down. For millions, WhatsApp is how they regularly communicate with family and friends on a daily basis. 

And If Facebook had its way over the years, the outage could have had even more widespread effects. There’s Facebook’s Free Basics program, which was both an app and website that targeted the Global South with the mission to “connect the unconnected” by allowing them to browse the Internet (through Facebook) free of data charges. In reality it was an attempt to, as communications scholar Toussaint Nichols writes, “spur greater data consumption, and in the process grow Facebook’s user base while cementing the corporation’s position as the gateway to the Internet for mobile users across the Global South.” India blocked the service over concerns that it only presented a blinkered, Facebook-approved version of the internet to people as being “the internet.”

Facebook’s foray into finance followed the same model; the company proposed the creation of a new digital currency, Libra, that would be backed by a corporate coalition of the willing under the pretense of “banking the unbanked” and allowing them to quickly and seamlessly use mobile devices to transfer Libra into dollars, renminbi, or whatever other currency. The initiative was roundly dismissed as a clear power grab and was subsequently dialed down from its initial world-altering ambitions. 

In both instances, the reason why Facebook was able to pursue both initiatives wasn’t because of a lack of transparency or accountability, it was because of the inordinate amount of market power that it was able to convert into other forms of influence. And in both instances, what defeated the proposals weren’t transparency and accountability systems, but intense backlash that threatened to catalyze regulatory responses which would undermine Facebook’s power. But even despite all that, versions of Facebook’s plan still persist and will be pushed through if only because of Facebook’s sheer size and power. In fact, Free Basics is still very much active across Africa where at least 32 countries have seen the program rolled out and expanded further.

Millions live in countries and communities where, even after the defeat of Free Basics in India, Facebook is a major gateway for internet activity. It’s not clear why that should be understood as an issue of transparency or accountability, as if the issue were one of goodwill and intention as opposed to the logic of markets and capital working on a communications platform as large as Facebook. Haugen has said that Facebook “chose profits over safety” but it feels as if we are supposed to believe it was a real choice, instead of the logical consequence of the laws we have, the amount of power Facebook has, and a host of other factors that should be tackled with antitrust legal action to cut the company down to size, spin off various businesses, and prevent that sort of consolidation of economic and political power from ever happening again.

A lack of transparency and accountability aren’t why Facebook has been able to exploit content moderators or independent contractors, nor why it has been able to facilitate a genocide or spark a mental health crisis, or any of the long list of sins and abuses we can amend to the company’s constantly growing record. The reason it has been able to do all this (and get away with it) is power. Shining a light on power doesn’t necessarily undermine power, but bringing a hammer down on it will.

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