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Don’t Break Up Facebook — Make It a Public Utility

We should be concerned about the power big tech firms have in our lives. But antitrust lawsuits against tech monopolies are just a Band-Aid for the real problem: the need to free the social networks we use from private profit and the drive to sell our data.

The market-driven response of attempting to restore competition in the tech sector does little to combat the underlying problems of surveillance, exploitation, and manipulation. Even if such conglomerates could be broken up, they would still be giant, privately owned platforms run by tech founder-despots. (Unsplash)

Last Christmas, I was given the board game Anti-Monopoly. What a friend had imagined to be an anti-capitalist spoof of Monopoly turned out to be a “free enterprise” game that attempts to teach players the virtues of antitrust laws and free-market competition.

The game was awful. The pieces and money were terrible quality, the rule book was a mess, and the rules of the game rendered it essentially unplayable (it takes hours to bankrupt anybody). Much like the original, Anti-Monopoly is an overpriced scam and felt like a cheap way to earn a quick buck. In attempting to impart the benefits of free-market competition, the game only reminded us of the disappointments it brings.

We should, indeed, be concerned about how far giant tech companies dominate our lives by monopolizing entire industries. The problem is the anti-monopolist critics of Big Tech — from Zephyr Teachout to Shoshana Zuboff — often rely on an implicit idea that beneath the bad monopolist and surveillance capitalism there is a healthy and productive capitalism to which we can return. This myth of a perfectly functioning decentralized market of small and medium businesses in healthy competition — striving for profit, but not striving to maximize profit — lies at the heart of recent anti-monopoly investigations into Facebook, Google, and Amazon. But antitrust lawsuits will only get us so far.

Platforms like Google and Facebook are public utilities that are fast becoming essential for living in our hyper-connected societies. We need a fundamental reorientation of the ownership and governance structures of platforms, so they are run for the people and not for profit. It’s important that the “techlash” of the past five years does not get completely reframed as simply an issue of anticompetitive monopoly behavior rather than one of tech-enabled and predatory capitalism.

The Antitrust Case

Big Tech’s long-awaited breakup party has finally arrived. On December 9, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and US state attorneys filed antitrust lawsuits against Facebook, seeking forced divestment of its Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services. Mark Zuckerberg’s carefully laid plans for social network domination may be in jeopardy.

It’s not yet clear how likely the FTC is to succeed. On the one hand, some of their evidence is quite juicy. They have Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook executives on record explicitly stating they are trying to snuff out the competition. On the other hand, the law hasn’t been used successfully since the 1980s, and as Mike Isaac and Cecilia Kang have argued, courts are wary about unwinding mergers by offering breakup remedies.

The FTC has also argued that — as a simple messaging service — WhatsApp does not compete with Facebook, but by acquiring it Facebook engaged in anticompetitive behavior. This raises some thorny issues and seems to imply that WhatsApp would have eventually competed with Facebook if not for the acquisition — a tough case to make. The lawsuit might end up being all bark and no bite.

However, the fact that this case has been filed — with more on the way — signals a bipartisan consensus to do something, which is a step in the right direction. If successful, it would clearly damage Facebook’s dominance in the space and open the possibility of serious competitors emerging over the course of the decade. It will also hopefully pave the way for other regulatory action aimed at curtailing tech companies’ power.

The Limitations of the Case

However, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, the lawsuit doesn’t actually aim to break up Facebook, merely divest it of its recent acquisitions. When AT&T was broken up in 1984, it split the company into separate businesses, nicknamed Baby Bells, that continued to provide telephone services.

And nobody would benefit from seven baby Facebooks. This would undermine the advantages that network effects bring to the platform: the more users, data, and revenue it has, the better the service becomes. It would also be a bummer not to be able to contact your parents anymore because they were on Midwest Facebook and not Pacific Facebook.

This market-driven response of attempting to restore competition in the tech sector does little to combat the underlying problems of surveillance, exploitation, and manipulation. Even if such conglomerates could be broken up into their individual companies, they would still be giant, privately owned platforms run by tech founder-despots primarily for the benefit of the companies’ few shareholders.

Antitrust law also doesn’t address the many other legitimate concerns people have about the platform, from election interference to misinformation and social media addiction. One can’t help but sympathize with former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, that antitrust law is in fact a “very blunt instrument.”

There is a hypothesis in the case — drawing on the scholarship of Dina Srinivasan — that as Facebook’s competition decreases, so, too, does its protection of consumer privacy. There is some evidence to support this claim. But this argument underestimates the extent to which harvesting consumer data is the entire focus of the company’s profitable aspect.

The advertising model of companies like Facebook and Google relies on the extraction of valuable data in exchange for a service free at the point of use. Without its intricate knowledge of consumer preferences and a semi-plausible claim to be able to influence their behavior, there is no business. Any competitors to Facebook would ultimately end up adopting a similar model, and competition would lead them to maximize the level of information extracted. Previous predictions that a competitive social media landscape would empower consumers — for instance, by building up the “sharing economy” — have proven wildly inaccurate.

Platforms as Public Utilities

An important element of the antitrust discourse on Big Tech is the implicit understanding of the largest companies as what Elizabeth Warren’s campaign called “platform utilities.” This articulates an understanding of the companies as providing a public service that is essential to our daily lives, requiring a new model of regulation and control. But attempts to hold these companies accountable through government oversight fail to properly disrupt their power.

The greater the power and public role of certain digital platforms, the greater the need not simply to regulate them as public utilities, but to bring the service they offer back under public ownership and democratic control. We need to build open and inclusive platforms and provide mechanisms for people to participate in them and decide on how they are organized.

Public ownership is not a panacea to all our problems, but it does allow us to assert our collective democratic power against the private rule of economic elites. Platform utilities owned by the community wouldn’t be driven by the same incentives to maximize profits and operate primarily in the interests of their venture capital investors. They would be better able to address a host of problems on the platform from misinformation to privacy concerns that are primarily caused by the platform owners’ desire to minimize their own responsibility and maximize the amount of time individuals spend on the platform.

Platform utilities would enable the full potential of technology to be unleashed for the public. This transfer of wealth and power from the tech companies of the billionaire class to the public would reverse the logic of privatization that has pervaded the growth of technology over the past decades. Platforms should be repurposed, so they provide services that are free at the point of use rather than extract wealth from the communities they purport to serve.

Beyond Nationalization

One major concern is that public ownership of digital platforms would place large amounts of personal data in the government’s hands which would threaten individual liberties. Do we really want to replace Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos with Joe Biden and Jair Bolsonaro? Would this not just provide the government — an institution well known for its history of surveillance, violence, and discrimination — with access to our most personal information and activities?

Calls for the democratization of the platform economy need not involve an overly centralized model of twentieth-century state socialism. There are a number of current publicly owned utilities, such as Scottish Water, that are operated by independent statutory organizations that are nevertheless accountable to the public through the government. We can also turn to new forms of democratic and public ownership that could be dispersed across the local, regional, national, and international levels.

We could imagine certain platforms owned and managed by local platform cooperatives and municipal authorities. Food delivery, ride-hailing, domestic services, and short-term rentals could all potentially fall into this category. These platform cooperatives would be insufficient on their own and would need to be accompanied by larger-scale public infrastructure and investment by city, regional, and national governments.

The DECODE (Decentralised Citizens-Owned Data Ecosystem) project, a series of pilot studies in Barcelona and Amsterdam between 2017 and 2019, offers a new pathway for municipal-led digital services. In one of the pilot projects, Barcelona City Council gave city residents sensors to place in their neighborhoods, which were integrated into the city’s sensor network gathering data on air quality, energy usage, and noise pollution. A distributed ledger called Chainspace enabled anonymized data sharing to create public value from a data commons. It allowed citizens to decide what data they wanted to share and with whom.

When we reach the level of global services such as internet search engines and social networking sites, we face an unprecedented challenge because the value of the service is derived from its global character. Putting the local community bike repair cooperative in charge of a public Facebook simply will not do, nor would state-run national social networks such as those proposed by the Australian Centre for Responsible Technology and the UK think tank Common Wealth. Without an international user base, these social networks would not be viable alternatives to existing options.

Universal Digital Services

An alternative would be to launch a democratically organized global public platform that provided digital tools to the world. A Global Digital Services Organization (GDSO) has been mooted, either as a completely independent organization, or as a specialized agency working with the United Nations, along the lines of the International Labour Organization and International Telecommunication Union.

The aim of the GDSO would be to improve people’s access to digital communications tools by providing essential digital services for people to connect online. It should begin by adopting existing technology to run an internet search engine, a basic email service, and a social networking site, thus providing a replacement of some of Facebook’s and Google’s services, which could be expanded where needed.

It could be founded through a levy on global profits of tech companies and could receive ongoing funding through the establishment of a Citizen’s Digital Wealth Fund. This would be an expensive operation as services provided by Google and Facebook are extremely complex and difficult to run. This would also require the political will to socialize data centers and other hardware and infrastructure. Estonia’s pioneering “data embassies” provide an example of a public cloud operated from within the territory of another state, which could be used as a model for a new system.

The democratic governance of the GDSO could be determined at an annual conference that would set broad policies, elect an executive body, and appoint key technical experts who would be in charge of running the digital service. Each country using the service would be entitled to be represented by a delegation consisting of one government-appointed representative, one representative from civil society, and one member of the public selected by lot. All delegates would have the same rights, could express themselves freely, and vote as they like.

Each member state should also organize their own Digital Citizens’ Assembly, a national assembly of citizens selected by lot from a pool of volunteers on a yearly rotating basis. These assemblies could be organized through the digital and democratic platform, Decidim — software trialed in Barcelona that enables citizen participation in online decision-making. The assemblies would be spaces for citizens to launch citizen initiatives, debate proposals put forward by other assemblies, and vote on how they would like to see the service change. These public deliberations would enable greater scrutiny and oversight of the day-to-day running of the service.

The vague and secretive “community standards” currently employed by corporate platforms should be democratically decided by communities of users. Facebook’s newly appointed Independent Oversight Board is a step in the right direction and could be replicated within the GDSO as a means of deciding contentious issues of content moderation. But board members ought to be democratically elected by GDSO representatives, not be the unaccountable appointees of a private company.

Other plausible alternatives can be imagined. But given the enormity of the challenge, it’s not enough to carve out small pockets of resistance at the margins of global capitalism, or still less to allow tech giants to continue business as usual. Imagine an alternative reality in which a tech entrepreneur, let’s call him Jeff Encyclomusk, crushed Wikipedia in its infancy and bought up or stamped out the rest of the competition.

In this darkest of timelines, would citizens not have a right to demand that access to humanity’s collective knowledge not be controlled by a profit-driven company? Our attitude toward basic digital services should be no different.