Sometimes some new scrap of information strings a link between two previously disconnected neurons, your cortex reconfigures, and a whole constellation of thoughts snap together in a new way. That’s happened to me recently, I’ve realised something that other people have a lot quicker than me – Facebook is eating the web. The original John Perry Barlow / Tim Berners Lee / Jimmy Wales vision of a digital space everyone owned is dying. It’s sometimes easy to forget how recently we had lofty visions, and how extensively the web has reoriented towards advertising.
But it’s more than that. The normal checks and balances for dominant corporations – competition laws – don’t apply here. You don’t pay for social networking, so it isn’t a market, so there is no competition law. I’ll come back to this later.
I’m doing a PhD looking at how the public sector can benefit from social media data. Corporations own datasets of unimaginable social value, and the only thing they want to do with them is sell them to advertisers. All their other potentially beneficial social roles, tracking diseases, policy consultation and strengthening communities, to mention just three, are getting harder to realise.
That’s not to say there aren’t amazing civic technology projects still happening, but they all happen under the looming shadow of Facebookification.
In denial, I clung to the belief that Facebook’s unbelievably massive user numbers were just not true. Looking for research on this I discovered a paper which contained startling statistic – there are more Facebook users in Africa than there are people on the Internet. Exactly as I thought – Facebook are massively inflating their numbers. Except… further investigation showed that many survey respondents were unaware that they were on the Internet when they used Facebook. They didn’t know about the web, they only knew about Facebook. Research that I thought was going to confirm my world view did the exact opposite: mind… flipped. That was the first inflection point, when I started to feel that everything had gone wrong.
The second was trying to use the Instagram API for some research. For a long time I’ve been aware that the Facebook API is so hostile that I wouldn’t be able to use it. Facebook is such a complicated product, with such complex privacy settings, that perhaps it’s inevitable that API is basically unusable. But Instagram is incredibly simple, and many people choose to make their photos public. To me, it’s absolutely natural that they would make public photos available via an API. But, since November 2015, Instagram’s API has been radically curtailed. All the apps that use it have to be reviewed, and there is an onerous list of conditions to comply with. To a first approximation, Instagram turned off their API.
Again, mind flipped. Facebook have purchased Instagram, and now they’ve strangled it as a source of data. They are a commercial company, and they can do what they like, but my mind boggles at the mean spiritedness of shutting the API. The photos belong to the users, and the users have asked for them to be published. Third parties might well do amazing things with the photos – to the benefit of everyone including their creators. Instagram can do that at very close to no cost to themselves. The traffic to the API is peanuts in server costs, and it’s simple to rate limit it. Similarly, rate limiting it means you wouldn’t be giving away the large scale analytics data you might sell. You can ban people from duplicating the Instagram app and depriving you of advertising revenue, just as Twitter have. The downsides to Instagram are tiny.
Not so long ago, the wisdom was that an API with a rich third party ecosystem was the key to success. Twitter was the model, and it’s still wonderfully open (fingers crossed). Yahoo really got it – remember Yahoo Pipes? A graphical interface for playing with all the open APIs that used to exist, infrastructure for a gentler time.
The new players don’t care. Facebook has very successfully pioneered the opposite approach, where you put up barriers anywhere you can.
Neither of these two things is big news, not the biggest stories on this topic by a long shot, but for whatever reason, they were an epiphany for me. They made me realise that Facebook is a unique position to take control of the web and drain it of its democratic potential.
I’m not in love with everything Google does, but, as a search engine, it’s interests could be seen as aligned with an open web. I don’t love Amazon’s dominance, but at least its marketplace makes a pretty transparent offer to users, just as Apple’s hardware business does. Facebook, which obviously competes in the advertising market with Google, has a strong interest in curtailing the open web. Facebook, as Mark Zuckerberg has explicitly said, would like to become the main place people go to read news, using Instant Articles rather than web pages, hidden away in Facebook’s walled garden. Increasingly, as the earlier evidence indicated, Facebook is the web.
But Facebook is different from the other big tech companies in another, much more important way. It is almost invulnerable to antitrust and competition regulations. In the 1990s, Microsoft was in a massively dominant position in tech. In both Europe and the US, governments brought cases against MS, saying that they were exploiting their position to the detriment of consumers. The cases did serious damage to MS, and their dominant position slipped. Right now, the same thing is happening to Google’s dominance – the EU is bringing cases against them for their behaviour in relation to Android.
One reason that Apple always positions itself at the premium end of the market may be exactly to avoid gaining enough market share to qualify as a monopoly – instead it satisfies itself with high margins in a smaller segment.
But Facebook don’t actually sell anything to consumers, so they aren’t in a market, so no case can be bought against them. Sure, they are in the advertising market, and they are a big player, but only alongside Google and all the others.
Combined with Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook is massively dominant in social networking. But social networking isn’t a market, because it’s free. Nor is Facebook a common carrier, nor are they a newspaper or a TV station, all of which have laws formulated specifically for them. For Facebook, there is no law.
I’d guess this one of the reasons that Facebook is so clear it will never charge users – to do so would expose them to competition law.
Maybe it’s OK, because some guy in a dorm room or garage is right now working on a Facebook killer. Except they aren’t, because, as with Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook will just buy any thing that threatens it – and lock new purchases it into it’s own closed infrastructure. Nothing is more lucrative than a monopoly, so the stock market will write a blank cheque for Facebook to reinforce its position.
The board of Facebook must spend a great deal of time thinking about what could go wrong. A massive data leak? Accidentally deleting everyone’s photos? Cyberbullying suicides becoming common place?
Surely competition laws aimed at the company are near the top of risk register. What are they likely to be doing about that? They can do the normal revolving-door, expensive dinner lobbying shenanigans, and I’m sure they are. But Facebook has a whole other level of leverage. The platform itself is profoundly political. They have detailed data about people’s voting intentions, highly politically desirable advertising space, the ability to influence people’s propensity to vote, and can use the massively influential Facebook trending to promote whatever view they like. What politician wants to tangle with that kind of organisation?
If I was being cynical, I’d start to think about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Facebook surely already has unimaginable access, but this organisation (not technically a charity) adds a halo of beneficence, a vehicle for the Zuckerberg point of view to embed itself even more deeply.
Why haven’t I mentioned Internet.org? It’s too depressing. I’ll write about that another day.
Not only is there no law for Facebook, but the democratic system for creating laws has incentives that mostly point in the wrong direction. You can construct all kinds of scenarios if you try hard enough. For me, the prospect of the mainstream web being controlled by a single corporate has moved from being distant possibility to being a likely future. Let’s just hope things turn out more complicated, they usually do…