Facebook as a powerful, ubiquitous ‘utility’

Kwame Opam wrote an interesting piece on The Verge a few months ago about Facebook’s responsibilities in the modern world (in the context of the Paris terror attacks). I thought his point that Facebook has become so ubiquitous that it’s akin to a ‘utility’ is a particularly interesting one:

Facebook is both a utility and an immensely powerful media company. The social network wields more influence than any single news outlet on the planet, serving as both a wire service and forum for 1.01 billion daily users. That means readers in search of a narrative will often turn to Facebook first. That’s an enormous responsibility, especially as the company acts out its ambitions of becoming a global portal to the internet at large. We need to ask ourselves: what should Facebook’s role be in determining the narratives that people follow?

Facebook’s call to action in the last New Zealand election

I’ve seen similar questions and concerns raised before with regard to Facebook and its promotion of voting on election days around the world. Facebook has apparently been experimenting with increasing voter participation through its platform since 2008. As Micah Sifry’s Mother Jones article points out, even if Facebook is approaching the encouragement of voting in an even-handed way, the impact of its actions can be non-neutral because its users may naturally be younger and vote for left-wing parties. Sifry also notes that Facebook has been troublingly non-transparent in its efforts, suggesting that if it was doing something truly dodgy we probably wouldn’t even know.

Every time issues like these come up, the question boils down to: how can we trust that these powerful, global companies act in the public interest?  What’s to stop Facebook pushing its own interests in the media, or encouraging people to vote for candidates who are pro-Facebook?

The use of the word ‘utility’ was particularly interesting in Opam’s article because it made me think of the other companies normally classed as utilities: electricity, water, gas, sewage, internet services etc. Because these other services are so important, and because they’re often monopolies able to exert market power, it’s common practice in many countries to regulate them to maintain acceptable prices and quality levels.

Hence describing Facebook as a utility raises the question of whether it also needs to be regulated to protect the public interest. It’s important to note there are some differences between Facebook and a normal utility:

  • People can choose not to use Facebook, whereas other utilities are normally indispensable. It’s arguable that as Facebook becomes ever more entrenched in our social lives, non-participation becomes less of an option, but I think there’s still a reasonably big difference here.
  • Facebook is free, whereas normally public utilities charge for their services.
  • Facebook is providing an intangible social connectivity service in contrast to a physical product.

While there are some pretty big differences, I think the fundamental point remains that Facebook has a huge and ever growing power over many aspects of our (social) lives. This power is only constrained by corporate ‘responsibility’, weak laws, and (probably most importantly) a desire to avoid unfavourable media exposure and public opinion. (This last point is important though–Facebook took a real hit to its reputation when it engaged in research manipulating its users’ emotions a little while ago. People got really up in arms, and I think public outrage when companies do bad things is a powerful force for change.)

In light of this relatively unrestrained power, I think governments around the world should be looking very carefully at the best ways to make sure Facebook can’t manipulate its users in undesirable ways. The truly scary thing, however, is that the longer we wait before acting, the more power the platforms accrue, and hence the better these companies are able to push back. I can easily envisage a scenario where a country tries to regulate Facebook’s political power, only for Facebook to wage a campaign against the proposal enabled through mobilising its users with biased information about regulating innovation to death. We’ve already seen how successfully Uber has been able to battle against regulators around the world (I’ve written about this in the New Zealand context).

I can’t say that the outlook for rigorous action is looking good. We know regulators aren’t good at tackling fast moving technological changes, and that these global technology companies are amassing money, users, and power. The question is whether users, civil societies, and governments around the world can mobilise against their power before it’s too late.

Further reading

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