Dominant Facebook supports net neutrality, political ads
Tuesday, October 22, 2019
Imagine the kind of hegemonic influence Facebook founder and multibillionaire Mark Zuckerberg has, what with his company supporting 1.5 billion daily active users. That massive data stream is a constant, along with the controversies swirling around Zuckerberg’s indirect and direct political influence.
Additionally, Facebook is developing the Libra cryptocurrency service, with which PayPal has recently cut ties. Recently, he’s also been accused of providing Democratic staff recommendations for Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, although the Buttigieg campaign joins others in distancing themselves from the seemingly impenetrable Facebook empire.
Facebook, Amazon, and Alphabet/Google present uncharted legal territory while upending market competition, leaving nothing but frustration for those who see privacy and information diversity as key democratic ideals. By virtue of the platform’s popularity, Facebook’s ability to shape public consciousness and debate — even debate about the very regulatory mechanisms it faces — produces a vicious cycle whereby people debate the legality of Facebook’s utter social media dominance on Facebook.
So, what would it look like to “break Big Tech up?”
Consider the graduate student introduction at Zuckerberg’s recent Georgetown University talk on the First Amendment and Facebook’s content policies. He waxed eloquently enough about the complex legal terrain Facebook inhabits, noting how it faces tough content regulation issues as we approach the 2020 presidential election.
Zuckerberg’s social media behemoth is itself ubiquitous in ostensibly neutral academic circles: such is the nature of this beast. His position is that Facebook champions free speech in a democracy, while retaining company security as the guiding force to regulate content — which is where it gets really subjective really quickly.
Before we bash Facebook as an uncontrollable monopoly, it should be acknowledged that Facebook’s status as an internet content provider (ICP) — along with Google and Amazon — has it advocating for net neutrality rules. Simply stated, it you support net neutrality you support equal access to online content.
ICPs are in direct conflict with internet service providers (ISPs) — companies like Comcast or AT&T — that provide local broadband services. Net neutrality simply upholds the equal status of all online data, decrying any actions — such as paywalls and zero-rating — that privilege kinds of content access. Here, the notion of “content access” is nothing short of information, with serious political consequences.
As one author explains: "...social media and streaming monopolies will be able, by cutting deals with the ISPs, to strangle their upstart competitors, keeping users locked into platforms that increasingly serve as little more than distribution networks for state-approved propaganda."
The relevant case here is the Oct. 1, 2019, U.S. Court of Appeals decision in Mozilla Corporation, Petitioner v. Federal Communications Commissioner and the City and County of San Francisco, et al.
Mozilla, the company that produces popular free web browser Firefox, partnered with groups like Public Knowledge and Free Press and were joined by attorneys general in 22 states and D.C. against Federal Communications Commission (FCC) changes to 2015 Obama era net neutrality rules.
The decision generally upholds the FCC’s repeal of Obama era rules: “...but struck down a key provision that blocked states from passing their own net neutrality protections. It also remanded a piece of the order back to the FCC and told the agency to take into consideration other issues, like the effect that the repeal of protections will have on public safety and the subsidy Lifeline program.”
Allowing individual states to pass their own net neutrality rules in a pro-ISP climate is tricky to say the least. An updated map shows Montana with net neutrality via executive order. Washington, Oregon, Colorado, California, and Maine have net neutrality laws signed on the books. Hawaii, New York and New Jersey have legislation pending with executive orders, and about 18 more states have net neutrality legislation pending.
Executive order was decreed as of Oct. 3 in six states: Montana, Vermont, Hawaii, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey. These states’ governors mandated that ISP’s follow net neutrality guidelines. The full orders can be read here.
What we are witnessing here is swift action by states to enact the state-regulatory provisions as decided in the Mozilla case. The FCC claims it can go after states on a case by case basis if they infringe on ISP rights.
Come again? The Department of Justice is suing California and Vermont’s strident net neutrality laws as we speak, determining the parameters of net neutrality’s state directed future. Keep in mind that broadband service crosses state lines, so the state solution to net neutrality will be a complex web of to be determined inter-state correspondences.
Meanwhile, Warren accuses Zuckerberg of 2016 election interference, and running false ads that favor Trump in 2020. Zuckerberg responds by outlining Facebook’s plan to monitor state run media, thus diminishing the foreign government meddling factor. Facebook will suppress ads that generally denounce voting or misrepresent poll locations and dates while maintaining regular political ads.
Will this satisfy Warren’s Facebook-election concerns? What about Zuckerberg’s recommendations for Buttigieg’s staff? Is that too egregious, or can Warren overlook some of his political influence given he is also a central player in Big Tech’s ICP wing supporting net neutrality?
Political frustrations over ICP dominance explain the motive behind states initiating Facebook (and Google) antitrust investigations in Colorado, Florida, Nebraska, Ohio, Iowa, Tennessee, and D.C.
Can states have it both ways, attacking ICPs for antitrust actions while joining them in the net neutrality cause? We shall see.
Of the states involved in Facebook antitrust probe, half (New York, Colorado, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Iowa) have net neutrality legislation signed into law or pending. Right now, Nebraska, Ohio and Florida seem to hold the most hostility toward internet content freedom, currently showing no tendency toward net neutrality.
As criticism of Facebook, Google, and Amazon grows for countless reasons, states, cities, and rural areas should pick and choose their battles. Strategically staggering ISP and ICP litigation plans favors an already developed broad coalition defending net neutrality and the public utility model for the internet.
Big Tech is split between service and content providers, and Democrats are in bed with Facebook on net neutrality while criticizing the company’s content hegemony in a presidential election cycle.
Since Facebook is a free service, antitrust litigation here focuses more on how the company amassed billions by increasing ad prices, while snatching up competition via surveillance and bully tactics. Consumer law addresses user privacy violations — including selling data.
Do we really want data vaults masquerading as neutral social media platforms? While the verdict is out on how accountable Facebook should be about its business practices leading to market dominance, it’s evident that today’s technology climate requires more complicated litigation than the old school Microsoft-style antitrust settlement.
This is a vital perspective as the company moves into the cryptocurrency arena, which is the subject of Zuckerberg’s planned congressional testimony on Oct. 23.
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