Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is headed to Capitol Hill this week to testify on the many ways the social media titan violates its users’ privacy, including the now infamous connection with a data analysis firm tied to the Trump campaign.
Zuckerberg is expected to apologize profusely and lay out new steps that Facebook will take to prevent such scandals from occurring in the future. The damage control effort is unprecedented in the company’s history.
Don’t buy it. Facebook is a corporate monopoly whose very business model is surveillance and user manipulation. It is a threat to our democracy and nothing short of breaking it up can protect our data and ensure that Facebook serves its users, instead of the other way around. Members of Congress and antitrust law enforcers need to investigate and address Facebook’s monopoly power.
The mess related to the 2016 election is, of course, not the first time that Facebook has violated its users’ privacy in ways that it only disclosed after those violations became public. In fact, Zuckerberg has publicly apologized seven times for violating user privacy since starting Facebook. And that’s because such violations are simply inherent to what Facebook does; it relies on the intimate surveillance of every user to deduce how to emotionally manipulate each person in her own way, and then rents out that information to Russian spies, con artists, racist landlords, and anyone else who will pay up.
There is no other social media company today that has the enormous global reach combined with the personal intimacy and immediate engagement of Facebook. There are more than 200 million users in the United States, with more than halfof all American adults accessing it every day, and almost 2 billion worldwide. It accounts for 77 percent of mobile social networking traffic in the U.S. Through its ownership of WhatsApp and Instagram, that reach is even greater.
Facebook is also the leading way that most Americans get their news. According to the Pew Research Center, just shy of half of all Americans get their news on Facebook – far more reach than any other social media site.
Those numbers are why Facebook is such a ripe target for those who would use your personal data to various unsavory ends. And like most monopolists, Facebook prioritizes profits over the safety of its users. For instance, Cambridge Analytica, the firm involved in the 2016 election, harvested data from up to 87 million Facebook users in America. And that’s just the start: Facebook last week revealed that it’s possible bad actors scraped the data of every single user.
But this abuse hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Facebook spends millions of dollars on corporate lobbyists, academics, and D.C. think tanks to ensure no one gets in its way at either the federal or state level. Its bottom line depends on lawmakers and regulators allowing it to operate with impunity and sell off access to your mind to the highest bidder.
Even with the spate of bad news the company has faced, Facebook executives have thus far been unable or unwilling to adequately answer how the corporation and third-party developers will stop malevolent actors from manipulating us. And it’s unlikely that Zuckerberg or anyone else at the company will trot out a viable solution during their apology tour this week. Facebook’s business model prevents it from solving these problems.
Instead, the government needs to step in and eliminate the source of the problem, which is the company’s monopoly power.
First, Congress needs to impose strict privacy rules on Facebook immediately, perhaps using Europe’s new privacy regulations as a guide. Zuckerberg has said those regulations may not applyto the company’s American users, so lawmakers must force his hand.
Next, antitrust enforcers need to break up Facebook, by taking actions like spinning off WhatsApp and Instagram to create competing social networks. Then they should prohibit acquisitions by Facebook for at least five years, to give competitors time and space to grow and challenge Facebook’s supremacy.
Finally, if top executives like Zuckerberg knowingly violated privacy rules, they should be held accountable and personally fined for it. There are also several other stepsregulators can take to ensure that Facebook’s monopoly power is reduced and its stranglehold on Americans’ data released.
No single private corporation should have as much power over our lives as Facebook does. Even if Facebook’s executives are sincere in their promises and believe that they know what it takes to fix the problems outlined here, Americans deserve to be protected by law. There’s simply too much at stake to allow Facebook to continue toying with our privacy based on its bottom line, rather than on what’s in the interest of everyone around the world who relies on the social network.
Sarah Miller is the Deputy Director of the Open Markets Institute, which works to restore competitive markets in America. She has served as a senior advisor at the Treasury Department and the Center for American Progress.