The Facebook empire of 1.4 billion users just conquered new territory, unrolling a "partnership" to host articles from some of the most well-known news publications in the world, in a venture that critics warn poses a direct threat to independent media outlets—and the future of the Internet.
"The basic problem is that Facebook is trying to become the Internet, so that it replaces the distributive, cooperative model of digital communication with a centralized, privatized system where a for-profit company controls all the levers of the way that we transmit information," Jim Naureckas, editor at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), told Common Dreams.
"Knowledge is literally power, and to have all that power concentrated into one company's hands is really a kind of feudalism," Naureckas added.
As of Wednesday, the company's new "Instant Articles" will directly feature stories from The New York Times, BuzzFeed, National Geographic, The Atlantic, NBC News, The Guardian, BBC News, Bild, and Spiegel Online. Under the platform, the entirety of a news article will appear in Facebook's iPhone app. The perk, according to Facebook, is that the article will load "ten times faster than standard mobile web articles."
The New York Times says that "news publishers can either sell and embed advertisements in the articles, keeping all of the revenue, or allow Facebook to sell ads, with the social network getting 30 percent of the proceeds."
Facebook is also allowing media companies to collect data on article readers "about the people reading the articles with the same tools they use to track visitors to their own sites," explains the Times.
"When you hear Facebook explaining what they are trying to do it sounds innocuous," said Naureckas. "They are trying to speed up the loading of articles on people's Facebook pages when they use cell phones. But the means of doing this is to subsume all content that people are receiving under this one company's control."
Analysts say this control raises numerous problems.
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"Any time Facebook acts as a gatekeeper to all content on the Internet, it raises concerns, not only because of their blocking procedures, but also because of the algorithms they use, which effectively give Facebook control over the content that gets featured," Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy for Free Press, told Common Dreams.
Karr added that the deal could strike another blow against independent media: "If they are prioritizing prominent news outlets, it only goes to figure that less prominent media organizations get pushed down."
Writing in anticipation of the deal in April, Trevor Timm, executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation, pointed out that the company's filtering algorithm "has increasingly turned into a pay-for-play system from news organization. Want more people to see your content? Then 'boost' your posts by shelling out some money. This already has turned Facebook into something of a two-tiered content sharing system, where the rich will inevitably see their stories go 'viral' (if you can even call it that) much faster than will the poor."
"How will its algorithms handle stories posted directly to Facebook that question Facebook’s monopoly status?" asked Timm. "How will it handle news organizations questioning its lobbying ties with the government?"
Even the news companies that signed onto the venture expressed reluctance and resignation. According to Times journalists Vindu Goel and Ravi Somaiya, the deal concludes "months of delicate negotiations between the Internet giant and publishers that covet its huge audience but fear its growing power." They add: "Facebook’s role as a powerful distributor of news makes many people in the industry uneasy. The fear is that it could become more of a destination than their own sites for the work they produce, drawing away readers and advertising."
James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic, echoed this sentiment, acknowledging that the deal with Facebook means "losing control over the means of your distribution."
But the deal is just the latest expansion of Facebook. The launch of "Instant Articles" comes on the heels of Facebook's revelation earlier this month that it is unrolling Internet.org—an effort to bring the web to the developing world as a Facebook-owned entity. The plan has been widely criticized as a bid to further privatize the Internet while jeopardizing the rights and privacy of users.
According to Karr, Facebook's Internet.org raises even more concerns about the company. "Facebook is not the Internet," said Karr. "The Internet is a place where Internet users have control. Facebook often presents itself as a portal to Internet, but it is not open in the same way."