Why Zuckerberg’s Resolution to “Fix” Facebook Should Scare You

Facebook Tricked Us Into Thinking Net Neutrality Is the Real Issue

It’s become all too easy to pick on Facebook. From its march to Capitol Hill with trusty allies Google and Twitter alongside to its struggle to do anything to adequately address fake news, Facebook had a pretty rough go of it in 2017. Facebook and its “open Internet” allies also lost the net neutrality battle in December when FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his buds repealed the Obama era decision to treat broadband companies as “common carriers.”

Facebook, Google and many other Internet giants were stirred to action by the threat to (and eventual repeal of) net neutrality, and rightfully so. Rejecting net neutrality threatens the end-to-end design principle that dictates ISPs (e.g. Comcast) treat all content travelling over their pipes the same and serves as the foundation of the Internet. (Putting aside the fact, for now, that many of the largest Internet companies already have peering agreements with ISPs or have their own private CDNs within ISPs designed to facilitate faster speeds.)

But the debate over net neutrality only scratches the surface of the underlying issue that the principle should solve: neutrality of all network and information bottlenecks. ISPs are primarily regulated by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which under its Title II, allows the FCC to classify them as “common carriers,” meaning they must provide access to all at the same rates (i.e. net neutrality). Other industries are also regulated as common carriers, including gas and oil pipelines and other public utilities. The common thread is that these common carriers control some bottleneck that society has decided members of the public should have equal access to.

As the country was coming online, it was important to recognize the common carrier status of ISPs: households needed a broadband connection to come online, but because of the high fixed costs it really only makes sense to run one line into each home (like the telephone companies of previous generations). Without a regulatory declaration that these ISPs needed to provide access to any member of the public equally, they would have been free to deny or discriminate. In other words, the ISPs controlled the critical bottleneck of allowing people to come online.

But, as more households have come online and physical access to the Internet becomes commonplace, information bottlenecks have developed elsewhere. I’m talking specifically about social networking and search. Nearly 80% of Internet referral traffic is routed through Facebook and Google, and a majority of Americans report getting at least some news from social media. These companies are all classified as “Title I information services” by the FCC, and even the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has little oversight power. Remember when politicians sounded exasperated, at a loss for how to control the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter when the companies testified on the Hill? This is exactly why. The government has extremely limited oversight power over the key information bottlenecks (Facebook, Google) on which most people discover most information they consume. I’ve drawn a parallel to the net neutrality debate to suggest that, similar to ISPs, Facebook and Google control bottlenecks, and we should demand neutrality from these companies just the way we demand it from ISPs.

A new “bottleneck” framework has been proposed before, by no less than Douglas Sicker, the head of engineering and policy at Carnegie Mellon. My interest is not only in open access to bottlenecks, as Sicker’s was, but in neutrality of all bottlenecks, wherever they exist.

Content on the Internet is abundant — essentially infinite — while the space on our screens and in our minds is finite. Algorithms, in a decidedly non-neutral way, decide what to feed us based on what they think we’re most likely to engage with (sprinkling a few ads on top for funsies). The algorithms serve as a bottleneck, deciding what content from the infinite web is worthy of our limited attention.

What’s worse, the companies controlling these algorithms have made commitments to “fix” the problems of fake news, abuse and hate on their platforms. This is a commitment to become even less neutral. In Mark Zuckerberg’s post on his “personal challenge” for 2018, he committed to just that, writing:

The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.

My personal challenge for 2018 is to focus on fixing these important issues.

Worried yet? Let’s play the tape a bit longer:

This may not seem like a personal challenge on its face, but I think I’ll learn more by focusing intensely on these issues than I would by doing something completely separate. These issues touch on questions of history, civics, political philosophy, media, government, and of course technology. I’m looking forward to bringing groups of experts together to discuss and help work through these topics.

First, let me pause to say I’m all for minimizing abuse and hate on Facebook and other platforms. But I think this issue is completely separable from the goals which I believe to be non-neutral.

This isn’t the first time Zuckerberg has articulated his view that Facebook can play an integral in the creation of a new “social infrastructure” in hopes of building a global community. His commitment to being non-neutral is frankly the scariest resolution Zuck could have made, and the politicians that have urged Facebook and others to “do something” about the fake news problem don’t seem to realize the power they’re demanding these companies exert. More than ISPs could ever dream to do, Facebook and Google control the information fed to us on a daily basis, and having the leader of one of these companies feel empowered to exert influence over what its users spend time doing on said platform is a dangerous, slippery slope. It sounds fine for Zuck to want to “mak[e] sure that time on Facebook is well spent,” but what even does that mean? And what does it mean when Facebook’s General Counsel testified to the Senate that “we want our ad tools to be used for political discourse, certainly. But we do not want our ad tools to be used to inflame and divide.” Have you heard of our President? By its nature, politics inflames and divides, and it’s dangerous that one company is in a position to stamp out what it may consider inflammatory and divisive content.

Zuckerberg made a New Year’s resolution to “fix” Facebook. That should concern you.

Throughout 2017, I read with confusion as analysts and writers demanded net neutrality on the one hand, but also increased intervention by companies like Facebook to moderate content in a decidedly non-neutral manner. We’re beginning to see the consequences of a non-neutral network in other areas as well: remember how Google removed YouTube from Amazon devices? Blocking access to a platform is a level up from the kind of “fixing” Zuckerberg seems to contemplate, but if he wanted to begin blocking certain content from Facebook’s blue-walled garden, who’s to stop him? As these few Internet giants continue to encroach on each others’ territory, it’s critical, as both consumers, but most importantly, as citizens, that they play nice and openly with each other. If we truly want a neutral Internet, we should demand neutrality from the most powerful information bottlenecks, not just those mean ISPs.

This Week Amazon Should. . .

Buy Target.

At least according to one technology analyst. Every week it’s something: from entering the pharmaceutical drug market to buying an upmarket coffee startup, “analysts” play a game amongst themselves, seeing who can suggest the most headline-grabbing click-baitey purchase for Bezos and company. I thought it’d be fun to track these outlandish claims each week at the end of my post. It’s become like the talking heads on ESPN: Dick Vitale picks Duke, Kentucky, UNC and Louisville for the Final Four every year, and twice a day, the broken clock is right! A quick Google of “Amazon should buy” will prompt results for not only Target but Kohl’s, FedEx, Twitter, and a host of other eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.

Who does Dicky V think Amazon should buy next?

HQ Trivia Should Fail, and That’s Good

RIP Scott, It Was Fun While It Lasted

Unless you’ve been living under a virtual rock the past couple months, you’ve probably played, or even read a think piece or two, about HQ Trivia. The app, brought to us by the genius bros who previously built Vine, has caused quite the stir, and reportedly seems to think it’s worth about $100 million now. Me too, me too. Unlike many an attention-garnering app before it, HQ must be allowed to succeed, or more likely, fail, based on its own merits. Facebook, or any other large Internet player (FAMGA, FANG, the Frightful 5. Choose whichever acronym you’d like), shouldn’t be allowed to swoop in and purchase a young, competing startup. The FTC has been consistently derelict in its duty of promoting competition on the Internet, leading to an increasingly closed ecosystem.

HQ’s meteoric rise has surely caught the attention of Internet giants like Facebook, but an acquistion shouldn’t be the answer to any perceived “threat.”

Perhaps the last app to cause such a stir was tbh, the app which gained 2.5 million daily active users in 9 weeks by allowing users to anonymously answer kind-hearted multiple choice questions (most likely to be President?) with a few of your contacts as the choices. tbh was quickly acquired by Facebook and now sits somewhere around the #63 most popular social media app on the App Store (a few spots below Google+ and a few above Grindr, for what it’s worth). The purchase price was reportedly below $100 million, but still not bad for an app with no obvious business model or route to monetization.

And so it is for HQ now. Perhaps its route to monetization is more obvious — advertising or sponsored questions/quizzes, a la the BuzzFeed model — but being just a few months old its sole focus is acquiring more users. Much the way Facebook snatched up Instagram in 2012 and tbh in 2017, I worry a larger competitor may try to buy HQ before it fully develops a competitive business model. These purchases of young, high-growth startups have created an unnecessary consolidation of power in three markets: (1) the “attention market,” or the game to attract and engage users, (2) social networking, and (3) digital advertising. The long term consequences of such consolidation are worrisome for us, loyal netizens.

First, the attention market. This is the game companies play to try and attract your attention, so they can (eventually) sell advertisements based on user numbers. HQ has obviously done something impressive, winning a few minutes of teenager and millennial attention in what is a zero sum game (a minute I spend playing HQ is a minute I don’t spend scrolling through my Instagram feed). Companies and apps should be competing to provide a better user experience for the attention we “spend” on the app. Save the constant technical glitches, the market has proven that HQ is providing users some enjoyment that Facebook, Insta, Snap, etc. are not. I’ll save my high-minded thoughts on how we should really be spending our limited supply of attention for another post, but the reality is we need competition in the market for our attention. Allowing Facebook to consolidate this market has worrying long-term implications: More ads, less (or no) choice, Facebook acquiring ever more user data, etc. Allowing a large player to acquire HQ lessens this competition, providing less incentive to continue building a great user experience and innovate.

Second, social networking. Acquisitions can hyper-charge the network effect of a social networking app. This is exactly what happened when Instagram was acquired: buoyed by Facebook’s social graph and ad platform, the Gram took off, soon passing upstart Snapchat in daily active users. While it’s not as obvious how HQ could benefit from being acquired by Facebook and having access to its massive resources, and most importantly, its social graph, it’s also not hard to paint a scenario where HQ moves beyond viral hit and becomes an app with real staying power, fueled by Facebook’s monetary and non-monetary resources (e.g. its social graph and ad platform). Not to mention the ‘book has long been interested in a live video play (what happened to all those Facebook Live billboards I used to see?). And rival Google has long been looking for a social media play — seriously, how is Google+ still #57 in the App Store?

Finally, the money. Digital advertising. In the U.S. in 2016, Facebook and Google accounted for 99% of all revenue growth in digital advertising. Resilient independent Snapchat has struggled since going public last year to gain any foothold in advertising. Again, the FTC and its peers across the pond have shown little interest in recognizing the importance of maintaining a competitive digital advertising marketplace. When evaluating the Instagram purchase in 2012, the U.K. Office of Fair Trading wrote “While Facebook generates revenue from advertising and users purchasing virtual and digital goods via Facebook, Instagram does not generate any revenue,” seeming to make the assumption that perhaps Instagram had no long-term interest in generating revenue.

For the sake of the Internet, HQ shouldn’t be acquired: it should be forced to succeed and innovate on its own laurels. Or, it’ll prove itself as another viral fad and we’ll erect a tombstone next to Yik Yak, Secret, Vine, and the other apps that demanded our attention just for a bit. By the way, HQ’s skeezy founders seem intent on staying independent. I am rooting for my Quiz Daddy though.

The reality though, is that the government has limited options for even stopping such an acquisition if Facebook were to make HQ an offer they couldn’t refuse. HQ is still only engaging a few hundred thousand users for less than 30 minutes a day, hardly an antitrust concern. For example, when Facebook acquired Instagram, the FTC issued no more than a stock letter approving the deal, seemingly unconcerned about the long-term implications of consolidation in the three markets mentioned above. Indeed, it’s unclear the FTC even acknowledges the existence or importance of the markets defined above, and their importance in the daily lives of most people. Sure, the parties will have to submit the merger to the FTC under the Hart-Scott-Rodino Antitrust Improvements Act, but there’s no evidence it’d get a second look as even remotely anti-competitive. And if AT&T-Time Warner or Disney-Fox isn’t anticompetitive, then who tho hell cares about a little app with a few hundred thousand users and a host with mediocre jokes that happens to ruin everyone’s New Year? That’s the larger, more worrisome piece of this. We have a system completely unresponsive and unable to address current market dynamics, which is leading us to an increasingly consolidated Internet ecosystem. It happened in radio, TV broadcast, cable, and so perhaps it’s only natural that the Next Great Communication Network would fall victim to the same fate.

An Un-unified Theory of Firsts

Why Codebrief is different, and death to Zuckerberg’s global community.

It’s generally recognized that the first blog was started by a Swarthmore College student in 1994. I didn’t go to Swarthmore. In fact, I didn’t know how to spell it until three minutes ago. Apparently someone got a few marbles stuck in their mouth trying to pronounce “Swathmore” and now we have what US News calls the third best liberal arts institution in this country.

At least I created a blog before US News did. I’m not entirely sure what this blog is for yet, but we’ll figure it out soon enough. I bet when US News got its start in 1948 it didn’t think it’d end up as a floundering publication on some amorphous network called the World Wide Web, having ceased actually printing a physical product in 2010 AD, solely existing to tell malleable and impressionable young teens that 5.4% of applicants were admitted to Harvard in 2016. I didn’t go to Harvard either.

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