Let 1,000 Facebooks bloom

Maria Luisa Stasi is the senior legal officer at the international human rights organization ARTICLE 19.

The revelations provided by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen have laid bare the tech giant’s misbehavior: In short, the social media company resisted changing its divisive business model despite knowing that its products were harming users.

Haugen, who is due to give evidence to the European Parliament later today, is certainly brave, and her recent discourse regarding her former employer has been devastating — but she’s also missing the point. Her recommendations for how to tackle the problem do not address the issue at its core.

In a nutshell, Haugen argues that we can fix Facebook, if only the company can be made to be more transparent about its practices and decisions. The issue is that this relies on an unspoken assumption that transparency alone will change Facebook’s commercial incentives.

As a private company, Facebook was never focused on prioritizing public good over profit. Its business model is based on extracting value through the systematic exploitation of personal data, and this is reflected in the design of its products and services.

Would transparency alone be able to change this? Unlikely.

Transparency is a building block of regulatory oversight, and there is no doubt we need more of it. If properly designed, transparency obligations would help shed more light on the black box that is Facebook, and more information might raise the volume of public demands for change. But simply calling for transparency, without a public debate, makes the challenge appear misleadingly simple.

To tackle the problem, we must first consider the trade-offs we, individually and collectively, are ready to accept to sustain online spaces — where the ability to freely communicate with others, share content and access information competes with the imperative for profit and social media companies’ fundamentally exploitative business models.

Even if were to succeed in blunting Facebook’s extractive impulses, we would still be faced with the fundamental problem posed by the company’s immense market power over the communications infrastructure — a system that forms a fundamental part of our democracies.

To allow this degree of power to rest in the hands of a single company is risky and should not be normalized. To entrust its management to a regulator or to the state will, in turn, demand a high level of public accountability, or simply result in swapping out capital bosses with unaccountable bureaucrats.

Thus, we must take steps to decentralize this enormous concentration of private power. We must create conditions for an alternative and for a more diversified communications landscape to flourish in its place.

Simply put, companies like Facebook offer a variety of services and operate in a variety of markets, becoming ecosystems. The idea being that once we enter the ecosystem, we can find everything we need and never leave. But there are several ways to prevent users getting locked into these ecosystems and ensure they have real choice regarding the services and products they use.

For example, regulators could require companies to separate their businesses and services, so that users are no longer forced to take them as a bundle, picking and choosing individually. They could also make it mandatory for companies to allow other businesses to interoperate with their ecosystems, so that users can choose what best fits their needs.

A number of civil society organizations, as well as a number of competing service providers, have repeatedly called for such measures to be put in place. And with the Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) package, the European Commission seems to be heading in this direction. It acknowledges that to guarantee the digital sphere matches our democratic values, we need both the provision of services based on human rights standards and the creation of fair and contestable digital markets.

However, these legislative proposals currently under discussion are in need of vast improvement, and when it comes to solving the Facebook problem, a number of challenges remain.

First, the proposed EU framework is likely to be a very light touch when it comes to business separation and service unbundling. Although certain DMA provisions would seek to reshape the behavior of online platforms like Facebook, unless they also disperse market power and reshape markets, these interventions might not be enough.

As long as Facebook will be able to erect barriers for other players, people will not be allowed to freely choose applications, recommender systems or other services for use on social media platforms — they will still find themselves stuck with Facebook.

Second, the effectiveness of the proposed regime will depend on how it is enforced in practice, including how future acquisitions by these online ecosystems are scrutinized. To secure diversified communications, Facebook’s further growth must be limited, along with its ability to gobble up proto-competitors and preemptively foreclose the market.

Haugen’s disclosures may well be a watershed moment. While her claims are hardly new or surprising, this is the first time we have seen this scale of documentary evidence. But we should not delude ourselves into thinking that her disclosures are a comprehensive statement of the problem, nor that her solutions are a panacea.

There is a lot more work to be done.

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