Economy & Business

Declaring Facebook a Utility Wouldn’t Assuage Users’ Concerns

Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at the Viva Tech start-up and technology summit in Paris, France, May 24, 2018. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
It could, however, ruin the things users like about the platform.

Toward the end of his new book, The Shadow War: Inside Russia’s and China’s Secret Operations to Defeat America, CNN national-security correspondent Jim Sciutto addresses the disinformation and propaganda that Russian intelligence’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) spread on Facebook and other social-media networks during the 2016 election and afterward. Sciutto offers a lengthy series of quotes about the problem from Michael Hayden, the four-star Air Force general who is the only man to serve as director of both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency — and, like Sciutto, an employee of CNN.

“Facebook’s business model requires you to stay. The business model – profit – is based on clicks. It’s based on time on target,” Hayden said. “The longer you stay, the more the algorithm drives you to like-minded people because, scientifically, the algorithm knows you stay longer because you’re being reinforced.”

“You can complain about Zuckerberg posting fake news. You can complain should be under the same rules for political advertisement as you are [presumably a reference to CNN and television], but it’s worse than that,’ he continued. “It’s the very business model that drives us deeper into the darker corners of our own ghettos. It actually is built to divide us as a nation.”

“That business, that algorithm, sucks,” said Hayden, remarkable words to hear from the former director of the CIA.

His solution? Declare Facebook a utility and allow the government to regulate the social media network by mandating changes to its algorithm and business model.

Hayden is not alone. In 2017, Steve Bannon argued that Facebook should be regulated like a utility because the company, along with Google, had become “effectively a necessity in contemporary life.” At The Nation, Bruce Shapiro called for regulating Facebook as a utility, while recognizing that “the root of the problem isn’t Facebook. It is about ideas and about politics: the mindless corporate libertarianism that dominates this company and the entire tech industry.” Over at LawFareBlog, Peter Squire offered a serious-minded assessment of the pros and cons of a utility scheme.

It’s easy to understand the frustration with Facebook over the Russian disinformation that infected its pages during the 2016 election and the power afforded by the proprietary algorithm that determines what posts appear on what user pages. Facebook’s description of the algorithm and what it prioritizes is vague and contradictory. In January 2018, Facebook publicly declared that it would prioritize “posts that generate conversation between people” in user’s News Feeds. But it also warned that “using ‘engagement-bait’ to goad people into commenting on posts is not a meaningful interaction, and we will continue to demote these posts in News Feed.” “Engagement-bait” was defined as efforts to “goad users into interacting with likes, shares, comments, and other actions.”

What is depressingly clear is that the more provocative, incendiary, and controversial the post, the more likely it is to “generate conversation between people,” and the more likely it is to be boosted on the news feed, being shared with more users. But this is also a reflection of long-established audience tastes — the old journalistic adage “if it bleeds, it leads,” applied to our brave new journalistic world.

Hayden’s point that “the business model – profit – is based on clicks” applies to every news and media site, including CNN and NRO. Every website wants to attract the largest audience it can, and there’s nothing inherently sinister, cynical, or corrupt about that motivation.

The algorithm may “suck” as Hayden puts it, but users probably wouldn’t like an algorithm that prioritized posts unlikely to “generate conversation between people.” (“Your friends are not talking about the following stories; you may find them worth not talking about as well!”) Beyond the algorithm, Facebook also has humans whose job is to try to find news of interest to users, but this simply replaces a technological problem with a human-judgment problem. Facebook news curators told Gizmodo in 2016 that they routinely suppressed news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network’s influential “trending” news section, and in February a Facebook contractor talked to Project Veritas about efforts to “de-boost” particular pages.

Every cry to treat Facebook like a utility is a vote of no confidence in how Zuckerberg and the company’s leadership have handled the issues of fairness, accuracy, and openness so far. But declaring a particular social-media platform — even a hugely popular one such as Facebook — a utility creates confusion about just what it is. Entities that are currently regulated as utilities are actual utilities: They deliver services that you as a consumer literally can’t find anywhere else: your electricity, water, sewage, natural gas. Your utility companies, often in partnership with government, built and maintain the physical infrastructure that allows these services to reach your home. Because they are the only game in town, so to speak, the government is obligated to regulate their pricing, their delivery of services, and the safety and efficiency of their infrastructure.

Facebook has little physical infrastructure; it didn’t build special Facebook wires connecting your home, laptop, or phone to the rest of its network. More to the point, consumers have the option of not using Facebook and using other social networks. It is fair to ask, as Senator Lindsey Graham asked Mark Zuckerberg, which companies represent Facebook’s competitors if it’s not a monopoly. Zuckerberg answered that “the average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch with people ranging from text to email.”

That answer isn’t completely satisfying. No other social network is quite like Facebook’s, with its combination of your friend’s vacation pictures, your high-school classmate announcing that he’s experiencing a power outage, the “memories” of the cookout that got rained out two years ago, your cousin’s videos of her cat, and your grandmother sharing memes. But yearning for a competitor to challenge Facebook means yearning for a less-useful Facebook. The breadth of Facebook’s reach is what makes it valuable to users — it’s often your best bet for connecting with that old college buddy, that long-lost childhood friend, or that black-sheep relative. If there were two separate and disconnected Facebook-like companies providing the same kind of service, then people would be annoyed, trying to stay in touch with the friends who were only on Facebook A and the ones who were on Facebook B. The whole point of the social network is to be able to connect with lots of those you know and want to know. You could say that much like Soylent Green, Facebook is made of people.

If breaking up Facebook’s existing networks is undesirable, then, can its business structure be broken up? Earlier this year, Elizabeth Warren proposed that Facebook — along with Google and Amazon — should be declared a “platform utility.” Under her plan, “companies with an annual global revenue of $25 billion or more and that offer to the public an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting third parties would be designated as ‘platform utilities.’” These companies would be prohibited from owning both the platform utility and any participants on that platform.

Warren would require Facebook to sell off WhatsApp and Instagram; she contends this move would put more pressure on big tech companies to be more responsive to user concerns, including those concerning privacy. But asked to list Facebook’s faults, few users would list ownership of WhatsApp and Instagram near the top. The best way to get Facebook to be more responsive to user concerns about privacy is for users to be loud about their concerns or to turn away from the product, not to make the product less attractive by forcing the company to sell off other its most popular apps.

(It’s also worth noting that Warren’s vision would bar these big companies from branching out into new industries, even when producers and consumers were pretty happy with the options such forays afforded them. For example, Amazon would be prohibited from simultaneously being an online bookseller and also owning a book publisher.)

Making Facebook a utility that requires government approval for changes would force it to stop innovating at the speed of Silicon Valley and start innovating at the speed of Washington bureaucracy, which is to say, extraordinarily slowly. Imagine the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s process to approve natural-gas pipelines applied to new apps and features.

Facebook has a lot of flaws, and it’s earned much of the criticism it’s received. But there’s little reason to think that some sort of federal Facebook Utility Commission would fix what really has people upset with the platform, and every reason to think such a commission would worsen the things people like about it.

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