It’s Time to Regulate Facebook

Facebook has become an essential utility, and a dangerous one at that. Western democracies can’t afford to let it run unchecked any longer: it’s time to regulate it, like we do with any other utility.

I first became aware of Facebook’s Goliath status a few years ago when I was teaching Facebook marketing at George Brown College in Toronto. At the time it was fashionable to express contempt for the network’s meteoric rise by pointing out that it was falling out of favour with teenagers and twenty-somethings. According to this narrative, all the “cool kids” were migrating to Snapchat and other platforms. Apparently, Facebook’s days were numbered, but I told my students not to believe the hype. Facebook was growing, would continue to grow indefinitely, and – what’s more – evolve to meet any and all threats to that growth.

I was right.

People thought Facebook was a monster back then when it had over 1.6 billion monthly users. To put this in context, that made it bigger than the Catholic Church, China and Islam. Now Facebook has over two billion users, and its tentacles are reaching ever further into our lives.

Because of that, it’s time to regulate it.

A short history of monopolies

In the 19th and 20th centuries, all kinds of technologies became widespread. Running water made its way into homes, electricity started entering cities and towns, and phone service cropped up everywhere. At some point, these services stopped being novel and became essential. That’s when government stepped in, to oversee their distribution, to ensure equal access, to standardize them and to prevent the oligarchies and monopolies running them from taking advantage of their position.

These technologies became essential utilities, and Facebook has joined their ranks. It’s where we get our news. It’s increasingly how we communicate with our friends and neighbours. It’s where we watch videos and see ads, where we shop, compare prices and find just about any other information you can think of.

Facebook is no longer a medium: it has become media for a large part of the world. In doing so, it’s become a monster.

Photo of John D. Rockefeller

Who’s that feller? Rockefeller!

By monopolizing the distribution of information for a large chunk of society, Facebook occupies the position John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil did in the 19th century: a true American success story that based on grit and hard work, which transformed into a competition-crushing behemoth. Facebook took down Twitter, bought Instagram, neutered Google+, are in the process of eating Snapchat’s lunch, and have trained their sights on YouTube. There are no effective competitors left for what it does: monopolizing the flow of information to your brain.

There’s a lot more at stake with Facebook’s content monopoly than Standard OIl ever dreamed of achieving with its oil monopoly. While Standard monopolized fuel, Facebook monopolizes information, the stuff that underlies Western democracy. It’s become increasingly clear that Russia used Facebook to undermine the American federal election, taking advantage of U.S. and Canadian operators such as Cambridge Analytica. Facebook’s single-minded pursuit of an information monopoly has wreaked havoc on journalism, the very force that should be protecting us from misinformation. Facebook’s newsfeed algorithms create a dangerous echo chamber that right-wing extremists and foreign dictators have leveraged to rig elections, sow unrest and impair the very workings of our society.

A Company Like No Other

That’s why it’s time to regulate Facebook: it’s no longer just another company. Facebook is a monopoly in the most potent, essential, dangerous commodity available in the 21st century: information. More explosive than gasoline, more dangerous than electricity and more essential than railroads and highways, information in 2017 makes governments rise and fall, starts and ends wars and determines the lives of millions. Facebook is no longer a neutral, mid-level purveyor of this commodity: they’re a monopoly John D. Rockefeller would be envious of, and one that seems grossly blasé about the role it plays in disinformation.

Each century sees new technologies that society and governments have sought to control or manage, with varying levels of success. We can’t wait and hope for Mark Zuckerberg’s behemoth to develop a benevolent or altruistic streak. For the sake of our society and our democracy, we need to regulate what is effectively Facebook’s growing monopoly on media, and we need to do it now.

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