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A demonstrator poses with an installation depicting Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg surfing on a wave of cash and surrounded by distressed teenagers, during a protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in central London on October 25, 2021, as Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is set to testify to British lawmakers. (Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP via Getty Images)

The Era of 'Self-Oversight' Is Over: Only Antitrust Can Rein In Facebook

The cold, hard truth of the matter is that Facebook is not going to change until the core issue at hand is addressed: The company's monopoly power.

Aidan Smith

On June 22, the Facebook Oversight Board issued its annual report assessing the company's moderation practices. The board, created by Facebook Inc. (now Meta Platforms) in 2018 to help set precedent for moderation decisions, indicated it "continues to have significant concerns" about the company's moderation transparency.

"Facebook's dominance is unchallengeable without government intervention."

Given the extent to which Facebook's harm to users and society at large has become clear in the past year alone, the board's conclusion reads as an understatement. From endangering young users to causing chaos in Australia to punish the government for regulating them, Facebook has vindicated its harshest critics in the last twelve months. Facebook's total lack of accountability when it comes to moderation decisions can also be illustrated by its treatment of exploited moderation workers who speak out about the company's harmful practices.

Since its creation, the board has been criticized as a "toothless" initiative that serves to give Facebook a false veneer of credibility. It's unsurprising, then, that the board also stated in its report that it is "encouraged by first-year trends in its engagement with Meta". With the board unable to serve as a real watchdog for Facebook's abuses, digital activists have taken matters into their own hands to hold Meta accountable. Initiatives like the "Real Facebook Oversight Board" should be applauded for their vigilant efforts to call attention to the company's harmful practices.

But the cold, hard truth of the matter is that Facebook is not going to change until the core issue at hand is addressed: The company's monopoly power. In 2021, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) declared that "The era of self-regulation is over" and that lawmakers would take initiative to hold Facebook accountable. It's now up to Congress to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICO) to rein in the monopoly power possessed by Facebook and other "Big Tech" giants (Google, Amazon, and Apple).

As noted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Facebook's business model can best be described as operating as a "monopolistic mission to either own, copy, or destroy any competing platform". Through a rigorous "kill-and-acquire" strategy to crush potential competitors before they arise, Meta has cornered the market and staked out an unchallengeable position. Controlling some 91% of the personal networking market as of 2021, Meta has little incentive to change its destructive policies. In fact, the company arguably has less than little, given that the proliferation of harmful content such as hate speech and dangerous disinformation is a profitable venture for Meta.

Mark Weinstein, a privacy advocate who previously disagreed with labeling Facebook a monopoly before ultimately endorsing the characterization, noted that when it comes to the company's dominance, "the glue that holds it all together is Facebook's monopoly over data." Unfortunately, when user data has value comparable to oil in the digital economy, this means that Facebook's dominance is unchallengeable without government intervention.

Weak antitrust enforcement gave Facebook a green light to build its monopoly, most critically through the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp in 2012 and 2014, respectively. Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who is now a vocal critic of the company, explained in a recent Time Magazine article how failing to stop Facebook in its tracks now could mean significantly more harm in the future.

While Mark Zuckerberg's "Metaverse" obsession is often derided as a joke, the company's effort to corner the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) markets early on should be taken seriously. As McNamee notes, there is a serious possibility that in a future where the "Metaverse" is omnipresent, one's ability to participate could rest on owning a Facebook account and buying a Meta-owned Oculus headset.

Additionally, as McNamee mentions, this future could also entail mandatory use of Facebook's Messenger service to chat with others in the Metaverse, with digital payments being solely made through Meta Platforms' own payment services. In its current design, the Facebook Oversight Board has no power to oversee either Oculus or Meta's messaging platforms, according to a 2020 report by TechCrunch.

It's obvious how a situation like this would only further reinforce Meta's dangerous monopoly power. And if a company-created "Oversight Board" has no meaningful power to help rein in harmful content on Meta's current platforms, it surely will have no value as a means to stop misinformation in the Metaverse. To force Facebook to change its harmful ways, lawmakers and regulators must rein in Meta's market power through passing AICO and vigilantly enforcing antitrust law.

With just weeks before Congress is set to go to August recess, Democratic leadership in Congress must make the passage of AICO and the associated Open App Markets Act (OAMA) a top priority. The bipartisan bill has the necessary votes to pass both the Senate and the House: Passing the bill will give President Joe Biden the opportunity to sign popular legislation supported across party lines. More importantly, passing AICO will prove to Big Tech giants that the "era of self-regulation" truly is over.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Aidan Smith

Aidan Smith is a Senior Advisor at Data for Progress, a progressive think tank. His research focuses on issue areas such as federal personnel, competition policy, and automatic voter registration.

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