America’s industrial scene has long been marked by monopolies – and by government, attempts to break them and ensure fair trade. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, once the world’s largest oil company, found itself facing that economic reality in 1911 when the Senate at last succeeded in an anti-trust lawsuit. With Facebook in the crosshairs from both sides of the political aisle, there have been suggestions that the social media giant might be just be too big to stand as well. As South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham argued to Mark Zuckerberg over his two day hearing on Capitol Hill, Facebook’s spread across apps and platforms makes it feel discomfortingly close to a monopoly (even if Zuckerberg feels otherwise).
Yet in the tech industry, there’s a better example of a monopoly which escaped the hatchet: Bell Systems, which for over a century held sway over American telephony. Unlike Standard Oil, which had sought to fight the government, Bell was smart enough to ask to be regulated. In return for cutting off parts of their enterprise, they got to maintain their monopoly until 1983. Not bad going, all things considered.
A government-regulated monopoly on Facebook would be beneficial for both parties. Facebook would get to keep on keeping out the competition. The US government would be able to have the peace of mind that they were regulating the biggest source of their citizens’ data outside of their own servers. And that’s not even considering that regulation would almost certainly offer a backdoor for accessing said data for national security purposes.
There’s also that fact that regulation avoids one danger of a break-up: strengthening Chinese tech companies. That was seen as such a trump card that it made its way onto the notes that Zuckerberg brought to the first day of his hearing. It’s a fair point, perfectly played to America’s policymakers with their endless references to Facebook as an ‘American company’. Given the lack of a Western competitor, China’s all-in-one WeChat (artificially grown in a state capitalist vacuum) could have the utility and the clout to take over at least some of Facebook’s roles. For US politicians, the idea of a company with close links to China’s government is probably even less appealing than a company with dubious links to Russia’s.
Of course, Bell was dealing with telephones and telegrams: simpler technology, and far easier for a government to wrap its head around than social media, data protection, leaks, and so on. The level of technical expertise on offer at Zuckerberg’s hearings in the States, in general, has not been the most impressive. What form the regulation would take is also difficult to see: perhaps monitoring of the types of data shared with third parties and available to Facebook employees themselves.
That still leaves the question of political division. Whilst concerns about Facebook are shared across the spectrum, the reasons for those concerns are not. Democratic politicians attacked Zuckerberg largely on Russian interference and the use of the site’s advertising platform for discrimination. Republicans routinely claimed that conservatives were being censored, with live-bloggers Diamond and Silk repeatedly being presented to Zuckerberg as victims of his site’s liberal agenda. Moving towards a consensus – beyond agreeing that Facebook has made a colossal blunder – seems almost inconceivable.
And finally, there’s the fact that this should have been a chance to grill a man in charge of the company which handed over immense amounts of data to dubious researchers and even more shady firms – whilst instead, we got more than a little bonhomie. Between the struggles of lawmakers to actually understand what Facebook does, and the rare cases of tough questioning that didn’t allow Zuckerberg to return to his script, there was far too much bonhomie: asides asking for rural internet, offering top tips for recruiting spots, even the outrageous attempt to curry favour by stating that Zuckerberg’s alma mater in Westchester, New York, was proud of him. In what were nominally occasions in which Mark Zuckerberg was to be cut down to size, America’s politicians made clear Big Tech’s immense staying power. The lure of an industry which offers jobs and money – and re-election – was too big, apparently.
Facebook has, for a long time, not been a product which people show real excitement about. Millennials, the hip generation for platforms, have increasingly voted with their feet or are vocal that they view it as a tool for keeping in touch with family. And yet, despite all the bad press and Silicon Valley screw-ups, the site has continued to hold on and grow. The immense fines from GDPR might hurt it enough to force a rethink of redirection, but don’t expect action from America’s politicians, too in thrall to the seductive power, money, and jobs of Big Tech.