Once upon a time, rapacious robber barons prowled the land, gobbling up competitors, monopolizing markets, and wielding enormous influence (sometimes through influence peddling) over government. Gingerly at first and then full-bore, Americans decided enough was enough and empowered Washington to regulate big business.
On Tuesday, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg begins two days of congressional testimony before lawmakers vexed over scandals besetting the social media titan.
I opened with a fairy tale introduction for two reasons: One, Facebook and its online brethren have enabled communication that, in my childhood, would have seemed magical beyond reality. Two, fairy tales have morals, and there’s one for us in the eerie similarities between the power of social media and that of the Gilded Age robber barons.
We need to consider a regulatory leash on social media similar to the one we put on other corporations a century ago.
That suggestion doubtless has libertarian cyberspace denizens readying outraged comments. Most Americans oppose regulation of the web, even in the face of Russians manipulating Facebook to meddle in the last presidential election. Yet by agreeing to appear on Capitol Hill, Zuckerberg is bowing to demands for answers to a crisis involving not just his company but the national interest.
...subversion of democracy is properly a public, government concern.
How did political consultants Cambridge Analytica, which worked for President Trump’s 2016 campaign, improperly harvest upwards of 87 million Facebook users’ data? How did another data firm pull similar antics, leading Facebook on Monday to suspend that company? What can the Facebook do to avoid a repeat in November’s midterm elections of 2018, when Russians shoveled genuinely fake news onto the platform?
Long before most people had heard of or paid attention to Cambridge Analytica or Russian bots, The Economist magazine warned that what it called the “Silicon sultans” were headed the way of Rockefeller, Carnegie and the robber barons, to the detriment of their reputations and our social welfare.
And today, when even a contributor to William F. Buckley’s free market-loving National Review calls for regulating Silicon Valley, we’re not in Kansas anymore, politically speaking. Victor Davis Hanson based his case on the Silicon sultans’ economic dominion:
Facebook and Google run veritable monopolies. Facebook alone controls an estimated 40 percent of the world’s social-media market. It has more than 2 billion monthly users. Google controls about 90 percent of the world’s search-engine market. Apple earns $230 billion in annual revenue and is nearing a market value of $900 billion. Microsoft controls about 85 percent of the word-processing personal and business markets. Amazon alone was responsible for about 45 percent of all online sales of any sort last year. It has huge contracts with the Pentagon and owns the Washington Post. When competitors to Big Tech arise, they are offered billions of dollars, cashed out, and absorbed. Facebook has bought more than 50 rival companies. It acquired former competitor WhatsApp, the world’s leader in messaging platforms, for a staggering $19 billion. Alphabet/Google has bought more than 200 companies, YouTube among them.
Hanson acknowledges that most people (including me) are happy with the services Facebook, Google and the others provide, which is one reason they escape the regulatory oversight “that monitors rail, drug, oil, or power companies.” He adds that Democratic progressives, drunk on the liberal politics and political donations of Silicon sultans, hypocritically put aside their usual desire to regulate, while Republicans’ anti-regulatory zeal keeps their party at bay.
Defenders might also say that Facebook is cleaning up its act: strengthening its restrictions on data sharing, simplifying its privacy settings, and verifying political advertisers’ identities and locations. Zuckerberg endorsed a congressional bill that would require that last step.
Still, Hanson is right when he says this near-monopoly power unavoidably invites “temptation” to abuse if not outright abuse. And subversion of democracy is properly a public, government concern. U.S. intelligence says Russians plan more election mischief this fall, and experience proves the Silicon sultans’ good intentions aren’t necessarily adequate safeguards.
At least one Republican senator who’ll grill Zuckerberg is open to regulation. (Yes, Republican.) Hanson suggests a “bipartisan national commission” to study the situation and advise Congress on steps it could take to ensure that the overgrown kids in the cyberspace sandbox mind their manners. It’s a good idea.