Is Facebook too powerful?

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By Paul Thompson, Chief revenue officer at Blis

Three hours and 27 minutes into Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate, senator Dan Sullivan pressed him on the question – is Facebook too powerful?

It’s a sentiment reflected by the House of Lords here in the UK, which has called on the Competition and Markets Authority to launch a study into Google and Facebook’s “dysfunctional and opaque” digital advertising market.

Facebook can be an extraordinarily useful tool – it has connected people and ideas around the world like nothing before. But it is exactly this magnitude which is becoming a problem.

A lack of understanding on the part of politicians and consumers alike about what Facebook is, what it does, and how it works means that it hasn’t been regulated like other behemoths in the communications world. This lack of regulation has allowed Facebook to become huge.

Self-regulation has worked and continues to work for much of the UK ad industry. But Facebook hasn’t taken concrete or fully transparent steps to self-regulate.

In this kind of situation, there needs to be oversight – particularly if there is a failure to follow the same rules as all other responsible media owners.

This is, ultimately, the current situation: Facebook is an unregulated organisation, which – with two billion members – is so large that it can influence elections around the world.

It reaches penetration levels of more than 70 per cent in the US, and has an unbelievable amount of power – whether financially, legally, or in terms of lobbying. It’s clear that something needs to be done.

Platform or publisher?

The eyes of the European tech industry are firmly fixed on the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), due to take force on these shores on 25 May. The effects are likely to spread much wider, and not simply because it affects companies abroad that trade in the EU.

The GDPR is such a wide-reaching comprehensive framework of data regulation that it’s very likely it will serve as a gold standard elsewhere in the world. Much more than this, the advent of the GDPR has made the issue of data protection top of mind for a large portion, if not the majority, of the population.

It is not yet clear how the GDPR will affect Facebook’s global business, but consumers worldwide are now thinking differently about their data.

The problem is that the way Facebook marketed itself to consumers back in 2008, is not how it is now.

Whereas previously most people didn’t understand the value of their data – or at least weren’t prepared to read hundreds of pages of terms and conditions legalese – now they want a fair exchange.

What users believed to be a content-sharing platform with friends was in fact a platform where information was shared with Facebook directly. Users had very little idea of what was actually going on.

Now, for a social media network, sharing user-generated content isn’t a problem per se, but when it comes to the kinds of data sharing and fake news spreading that Facebook has engaged in, it’s another story.

Fundamentally, a company is what it does, and not how it labels itself.

Of course, the neat little labels we have don’t always match with a very complex reality – but if Facebook acts like a publisher or media company, it’s a publisher or media company. This means there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be subjected to the same standards as other outlets of its type.

What’s next?

Social media has often followed the same cycle of rapid growth and a relatively quick collapse at the hands of the next big thing – who remembers Bebo? Does anyone still use Myspace?

What’s different about Facebook is that it can benefit from the legal grey area it exists in to grow exponentially, surviving the usual boom-and-bust social media cycle, and using its power and huge financial reserves to simply buy out competition.

How can the next big thing in the social media world emerge if it’s bought out in its infancy?

And as for the rest of us, bigger isn’t always better. Huge companies become big and clunky, and innovation often suffers in the bid for profits.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to call Facebook a monopoly. And there’s a whole lot of precedent for these types of companies to not just be regulated, but broken up into separate divisions – as was the case with BT and its Openreach business.

Whatever happens with Facebook in the future, it’s clear that some kind of regulatory action needs to be taken.

People need to be clear about what they’re signing up to, exactly what’s happening with their data, where it’s going, and who has access to it – while Facebook needs to take better control of the data it holds.

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