The Case is Stronger Than Ever: Break Up Facebook
Facebook is removing groups, posts, and events to block the spread of anti-quarantine protests.
Try inserting “civil rights,” “climate activism,” “LGBTQ rights,” or any other number of causes into that sentence in place of “anti-quarantine” and then read it back to yourself. Now try inserting “anti-Facebook” into the sentence.
Anti-quarantine protests are dangerous and misguided; there is no doubt about that. They are also likely illegal in most of the states in which they’re occurring. But acts of civil disobedience are always illegal, regardless of the rationale. The actions Facebook is taking are not just censorship of “false news.” What we’re seeing here is the selective exclusion of groups from a global communications platform. It’s the equivalent — but maybe even more powerful — of disabling the phones of a group of workers trying to form a union. Or Google removing all members of the Sierra Club from GMail.
Between Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp, the company controls the digital interaction of more than a third of the human species. Their platforms played a key role in the Arab Spring, are used by climate activists around the world, and have been critical in rallying support for Indigenous rights. You can argue that trying to stop the spread of anti-quarantine protests is a Good Thing and you wouldn’t be wrong, but we have to recognize this exercise of power for what it is — and be aware of what it means about how much control one 35 year old man from White Plains, NY has.
What can we do? Well for starters, don’t celebrate Facebook for this: yes, anti-quarantine protests undermine important public health efforts. But thanking Facebook for shutting down protests is equivalent to saying, “Thank you, benevolent billionaire overlords, without you we couldn’t get by.” We already have a system of legal and bureaucratic structures with accountability baked in that’s supposed to handle problems like this. It’s called democracy.
When Senator Elizabeth Warren proposed breaking up Facebook during her presidential campaign, she recommended extracting what she called “Platform Utilities.” These are large-scale companies that offer “an online marketplace, an exchange, or a platform for connecting third parties” — it’s a broad definition designed to include Amazon, Google, and Facebook. Her points are good, but her main focus is on antitrust issues: the internet’s “big three” own most of their competitors and use aggressive business practices to drown out competition. Facebook’s actions show that its power goes far beyond the realm of business malpractice and antitrust violations.
Warren is right that Facebook is a communications utility and it needs to be treated and regulated as such. As a first step, we need to break it apart and subject the platform to transparent national level regulation, just like we do for more traditional forms of media and communication. The challenge is that unlike a power grid, municipal water supply, or a network of cell towers, Facebook transcends national borders. What’s needed to regulate a global communication network? I don’t think any of us know yet, but I’m certain that the answer is not the whims of an American billionaire. Our next president, whoever it is, must make re-democratizing the information ecosystem a top priority. This degree of power threatens the very premise of representative government and we may already be too late to save it.