From avoiding taxes to undermining democracy and invading privacy, Facebook has been widely accused of the sins associated with all corporate bullies. According to US intelligence community, russian operatives have used this american social media giant as a playground. On October 31 2017, along with other social media giants testifying before the Congress, the leadership at Facebook said that they can’t even measure the extent of Russia’s manipulation of the US presidential election in 2016 and don’t yet have the tools to stop it the next time.
With two billion monthly active users, and the way those accounts are linked and viewed by users and by third parties, Mark Zuckerberg, insists his is a technology business and there is nothing Facebook users have to worry about. All of this on the heels of recent reports that Facebook shared data with at least four Chinese electronics firms, including one flagged by American officials as a national security threat.
Earlier last week, press reports revealed that Facebook allowed phone and other device makers, including Amazon, Apple, Samsung and Microsoft, to see vast amounts of users’ personal information without their knowledge. Among those partners, some have included 60 device makers that used application programming interfaces, also known as A.P.I.s, so Facebook could run on their gadgets. That behavior appears to violate a consent order that Facebook agreed to with the US Federal Trade Commission in 2011, after Facebook was found to have made repeated changes to its privacy settings that allowed the company to transfer users data without bothering to inform them. And it follows the even darker revelation that Facebook allowed a trove of information, including users’ education levels, likes, locations, and religious and political affiliations, to be exploited by the data mining firm Cambridge Analytica in order to manipulate potential voters.
In the face of these privacy violations, Zuckerberg and Company cannot be the trustees they have been insisting on remaining. At least, that’s why a consortium of consumer and privacy organizations, including the U.S. Center for Digital Democracy, has already asked the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether Facebook violated the consent order after the Cambridge Analytica disclosures. Facebook’s failure to protect users’ basic information from outdated devices is only more evidence that Zuckerberg’s company either can’t manage its data or can’t manage to care, despite his recent congressional testimony to the contrary..
Specifically, that coalition of activists has three core demands:
- Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger should be separated into four companies that operate independently.
- Require interoperability between competing social networks.
- Create strong privacy rules that empower and protect users.
As illustrated in the picture above, the petition is accompanied by a digital ad campaign that is targeting Facebook and Instagram users with simple messages like: “Facebook keeps violating your privacy. Break it up” and “Mark Zuckerberg has a scary amount of power. We need to take it back.”
The ads are also run on platforms not owned by Mark Zuckerberg, like Twitter.
There’s certainly an argument to be made that Facebook is just one player in a broader systemic issue — almost any criticism one could level at Facebook would easily apply to Google. But when it comes to initiating drastic measures against a powerful company, timing is everything. Google may be formally cleansing its culture of the “don’t be evil” slogan that was part of its foundation, but Facebook is the one with the most high-profile scandals at the moment.
The broad demands made by this coalition of privacy activists lays out in the petition certainly appear to be a long shot. Even though it’s uncommon these days, the U.S. has a history of nationalizing and breaking up large companies that run monopolies or pseudo-monopolies. Facebook, meanwhile, is dramatically expanding its lobbying team in Washington D.C. while it rushes through minor policy changes that it hopes will suffice. It also scored a major political win a few weeks ago when Andrew Smith, one of its former lawyers, was appointed to oversee the FTC’s consumer protection unit. Smith has promised to recuse himself from the FTC investigation into whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree with its handling of the Cambridge Analytica agreement breach. But this doesn’t mean that Smith would stay out of deliberations over a forced breakup.
Facebook disclosed July 2 that it’s cooperating with probes by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on how political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtained personal information from as many as 87 million of the site’s users without their consent. The FTC, the Department of Justice and some state regulators were already probing the matter, which prompted Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress in April. Facebook also faces calls for regulation from many lawmakers and the public over the privacy issue, Russian efforts to manipulate the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the spread of false information on the platform.
The European Union (EU) has passed the General Data Protection Regulation (G.D.P.R), which forces companies such as Facebook to do a better job protecting individual data. Facebook says is ready to extend the G.D.P.R. to anyone. At this point, it doesn’t make sense to trust Mark Zuckerberg. The only way ahead is some competition. Only a viable competition might change the game.
The many internet users concerned or deceived by Facebook about their privacy may actually serve as an invitation for another company to challenge Facebook. T-Mobile and its renegade chief executive, John Legere, proved that in the wireless phone industry. The wireless phone hegemony, once incontestable, has since been proved to be assailable by a smart rival that sells transparency along with a better service. T-mobile came from Europe (deutsche Telekom) Prices for phone service retreated; service improved. Everyone still makes money. Some company ought to do Facebook the same favor.
At some point a government agency might be willing to break away some of its components and chop it down to size. After all, it’s happened before.