For many citizens, the news that Cambridge Analytica obtained millions of Americans’ Facebook data and used it to help elect Donald Trump comes as no surprise. They see it as proof of what they already believe: that Facebook is an evil mega-corporation determined to exploit our personal information for profit.
For many people, too, the solution to Facebook’s behaviour is simple. As soon as the story broke, #DeleteFacebook began trending on Twitter (ironically, a service that has itself come under attack for questionable behaviour), and since then thousands of people have deleted their accounts on the world’s most popular social media platform. Many who have abandoned Facebook are worried about the potential misuse of their data – certainly a reasonable concern. But for others, leaving Facebook is mainly an attempt to harm the company by boycotting its services or to make a statement that its behaviour is unacceptable.
Despite Facebook’s many transgressions over the years, a boycott isn’t the solution. Facebook has more than 2 billion users worldwide, so even a million people leaving the service would hardly make a dent in its profit margin.
More importantly, Facebook and other social media companies have played a critical role in solving one of the key problems of contemporary society: the enforced separation from friends and loved ones that our mobility-based economy requires. Unfortunately, each of us needs Facebook more than Facebook needs us. If we delete Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg won’t suffer, but our relationships probably will.
So what should we do? The history of the communications industry, which has long been dominated by ruthless corporations, reveals that government regulation of Facebook and other social media companies can help protect our interests as consumers while preserving our online access to the people we value.
In a capitalist society built on a competitive free-market economy, the communications industry poses a unique problem. Because communications networks are effective only if everyone uses the same service (or at least interconnected providers), truly free competition is impossible – which often leads to the rise of monopolies, unbounded by the needs of consumers or the laws of the market.
For this reason, the communications business has always represented corporate capitalism at its most rapacious. In the mid-19th century, private postal delivery companies such as Russell, Majors and Waddell; Butterfield Stage; and Wells Fargo fought bitterly over mail delivery routes in the American West. In the 1870s, Ezra Cornell and prototypical “robber baron” Jay Gould duked it out for control of Western Union and the nation’s telegraph system. The American Telephone & Telegraph Corp., known as “Ma Bell,” muscled competitors out of the telecommunications business and created a monopoly that endured for over a century.
Similarly, the high-tech economy of Silicon Valley has been dominated from the beginning by monopolistic corporations. During the infamous “browser wars” of the 1990s, Microsoft systematically destroyed the Netscape browser by restricting Netscape’s access to Windows-based operating systems. Apple, once the sympathetic victim of Microsoft’s business practices, now draws criticism over the working conditions of its employees in China. Even Google, whose motto “Don’t be evil” attempts to set it apart from Silicon Valley’s wretched reputation, had to pay a $2.7 billion fine last year after European Union regulators determined it had violated antitrust laws.
Just as the Cambridge Analytica scandal has put Facebook users’ private information at risk, these corporate manoeuvres of the past often had negative consequences for consumers.
Wells Fargo, jealously guarding its mail-delivery fees, tried to block the postmaster general from instituting free rural delivery in the late 1800s. In the 1870s, Western Union blocked telegraph access to areas that featured Bell telephone lines. A century later, Ma Bell tried to box the cheaper MCI network out of the telephone business, depriving phone customers of potential cost savings. The collapse of Netscape eliminated the most intuitive Internet browser from the market, leaving Web users of the early 2000s with few options beyond Microsoft’s much-maligned Internet Explorer.
Given this history, Facebook’s actions sadly aren’t that surprising. But we shouldn’t leave Facebook because of Zuckerberg’s shady dealings any more than earlier generations ripped out their phone lines over AT&T’s violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act or stopped sending mail to protest Wells Fargo’s quest for an overland stage monopoly. Unlike companies in many other industries (health-care providers are a major exception), communications providers offer a necessary service that can’t be easily replaced. Rather than selling consumer luxuries, they deal in human connection, the ability to build and maintain relationships with people outside our immediate surroundings.
As historian Susan Matt points out, separation from distant loved ones has been one of the chief sources of sadness and misery for Americans over the past 500 years. European immigrants to the New World, Native Americans forced off their ancestral lands, Africans kidnapped into slavery against their will, pioneers bound for the American West and soldiers fighting in foreign wars all suffered from homesickness so severe it occasionally killed them. More recently, the demands of modern capitalism have forced Americans to abandon their families for job opportunities far from home.
Social media lets us remain connected with a broad network of people despite our physical distance from them. But just like the phone and telegraph networks of old, it works only when everyone uses the same provider. Leaving Facebook effectively cuts us off from a lot of people who enrich our lives on a daily basis but whom we’d probably not interact with very often outside social media.
Previous generations of Americans recognised that it was self-defeating to boycott communications companies over bad behaviour. Instead, they relied on federal regulators to protect consumers’ access to communications networks.
The US Postal Service’s contracts with overland stage companies came with strings attached: The government dictated the routes stagecoaches could travel and required drivers to honour scheduled delivery times. In exchange for government acceptance of its monopoly in 1913, AT&T signed the Kingsbury Commitment, which spun off some of its corporate holdings and guaranteed other phone providers access to its phone lines. In fact, when Ma Bell violated parts of the agreement in the early 1980s, the Justice Department broke it up into seven competing companies.
Similarly, a 2001 government antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft forced the company to relinquish its internet browser monopoly, paving the way for competing products such as Chrome and Firefox. And for over a decade, the Federal Communications Commission successfully prevented internet service providers from restricting the download speeds of websites that refused to pay them a premium until a new group of commissioners reversed the decision last year.
Until someone invents teleportation, our disconnection from those we care about will remain one of the central challenges of American life. By boycotting the service that comes closest to solving that problem, we only make things worse for ourselves. Instead, we should push for increased government oversight of the communications platforms that nourish and sustain our relationships. After all, regulating companies like Facebook is virtually an American national pastime; we’ve done it for 200 years, and our history shows that it works.
© The Washington Post 2018