If Facebook Is The Problem, Is This The Solution?

Michael Siegel

Michael Siegel is an astronomer living in Pennsylvania. He is on Twitter, blogs at his own site, and has written a novel.

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26 Responses

  1. LeeEsq says:

    There are still people on my side that claim that Warren’s idea of breaking up the tech companies is very popular. I am not sure where they are getting the idea. A quick google search shows that it is not a popular idea. It is probably because they aren’t overly enabled with big tech companies. That being said, I’m not really fond of your ideas either. I’m skeptical about the entire idea that there are many would be entrepreneurs out there that would take on big tech if the regulations on starting on a business were lighter. Just like people want one stop shopping, people want somebody else to the heavy work of starting a business.Report

    • Michael Siegel in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Warren is right that the number of startups had dropped significantly. Why exactly this is happening is a debate. But I *think* it was Stephen Bainbridge who wrote a lot about about Sarbanes-Oxley playing a big role in that.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Michael Siegel says:

        You can also argue that a lot of the low-hanging fruit of the Internet and computer industries has already been taken up. Everything remaining is hard and requires a lot of time, capital, and talent to develop. The vast majority of start ups were for low-hanging fruit.

        I think one of the big divides is between people who are willing to accept a good amount of financial and commercial Enron like hijinks in the name of economic dynamism and those that really thing we should these hijinks in the first place.Report

        • Michael Siegel in reply to LeeEsq says:

          Very valid point, I think. That’s related to why I’m not convinced that Facebook will go the way of MySpace. It may lose some of its power, but I think the 90’s and 00’s were the gold rush era where companies went bust left and right. We’re now more in the gold mining era.Report

    • Catchling in reply to LeeEsq says:

      “A quick google search shows that it is not a popular idea.” Well you do have to consider the messenger there…

      But yes, I doubt it’s, like popular popular.Report

      • Chip Daniels in reply to Catchling says:

        “Alexa, is breaking up Amazon a popular idea?”

        “No. It is not popular at all. Your query has been reported to the appropriate authorities.”Report

        • Marchmaine in reply to Chip Daniels says:


          But the people of NICE are smarter than that.

          “Alexa, is breaking up Amazon a popular idea?”

          “No. It is not popular at all. Good news, you have been approved for an upgrade to Alexa PLUS. Say yes if you agree to the terms so you can enjoy the fabulous features of Alexa PLUS. Say yes.”Report

  2. Chip Daniels says:

    I don’t have a strong opinion one way or another about the tech companies or Warren’s proposal.
    I’m not entirely sure there is a problem to be fixed.
    But what I think it interesting are the various ways we can look at tech companies.

    One way of viewing them is to consider them to be private entities delivering consumer goods in a market.
    Then the discussion revolves around whether our laws and policies foster more innovation and cheaper goods. In this view, government’s only role is to facilitate the delivery.

    Another way to consider them is to view them as carriers like highways and railroads, delivering consumer goods.
    Then the discussion focuses on fairness and access. In this view, government’s role is to be a neutral arbiter.

    Another view is to see them as information gathering and dissemination devices, which is I think rather new.

    This is different than “the press”, like newpapers which traditionally disseminate information. We have centuries of laws and cultural norms about how to maintain freedom of the press while still regulating it.

    Tech companies don’t just disseminate information, they gather it and hoard it and sell it to the highest bidder. And as we have seen around the world, information itself is power.

    We live in a world where the newspaper reads you, and stores more detailed information about you than anyone knows.

    We have also seen how information warfare can move public opinion and either bring the truth to light or conceal it.

    We, the people, are given legal guarantees of privacy of our information, to be “secure in our papers”, but it should be obvious that we the people have lost a large degree of control of this.
    Even something so simple as your browsing history and Facebook/Instagram/Twitter history tells more about you than any love letter you may have written, yet none of it is legally under your control.

    I don’t have a precise definition of the problem, and even less of a possible solution.

    But looking at other nations like China or Russia, and seeing the possibilities they are exploring in the use of technology to control and suppress dissent should give anyone pause.

    I do think our traditional political frameworks of Government versus Private Enterprise are not sufficient to deal with this new reality.
    As we’ve seen with the NSA and the ease with which they installed information dragnets on phone companies, the idea that there is some way to build a firewall between government and private entities is a myth.

    Again, I don’t have a complete grasp of this, but I do think that focusing on innovation and cheaper consumer goods probably isn’t addressing the real problem that exists.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Chip Daniels says:

      Again, I don’t have a complete grasp of this, but I do think that focusing on innovation and cheaper consumer goods probably isn’t addressing the real problem that exists.

      I honestly don’t think very many, if any, of our politicians really want to tackle the privacy/information issue, because they want to be able to access that data set, should they get it in their head that they need to.Report

      • Mike Dwyer in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        I mentioned in another thread how Twitter has been pretty inconsistent in their banning policies. If the government is going to start regulating these companies, is that on the table? And to be clear, i’m not advocating for that, but it’s an interesting discussion to be had around the value of social media platforms in our lives. Per Doctor Jay’s comment below, I really think Warren is trying to punish them for the shady things that were done around the 2016 election (and beyond).

        On a brighter note, there is a rumor that IG is getting ready to make a small change where only the user can see Likes on their posts, not their audience. The goal would be to sort of ‘de-collateralize’ Likes within the platofrm, with the theory being that people might be a bit less hungry for that form of validation. It’s a good change and that’s proof that some of these companies can learn and can do good things.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

          if the government starts regulating social networks as common carriers they will be, paradoxically, both more and less stringent. People imagine the Nazis will all be banned, but that’s even less likely to happen because it will be a genuine First Amendment issue, and “well it’s a private company” won’t matter because it’s not really a private company anymore. Meanwhile, posting anything porn-like gets you a monetary fine and possibly a criminal record, instead of just your post being deleted.Report

  3. Reformed Republican says:

    I think a lot of these large tech companies do so well because they are satisfying their customers, especially in the case of Amazon. If Amazon is broken up, it might benefit its competitors, but it is not going to make things better for the consumers.Report

  4. Doctor Jay says:

    I think there is very definitely a problem to be fixed. Here’s one explanation of what:


    I’m not sure Warren’s solution is workable, or if it will prevent some other entity from taking over Facebook’s role. I deeply resent how Facebook has managed to insert itself into my personal relationships and leverage them for profit. I deeply resent how Facebook’s presence has destroyed other online communities that I was a part of. (And I’m grateful that it hasn’t managed to whack this one.) I deeply resent the complete lack of accountability or transparency that political entities can have via Facebook.

    We could argue that this problem might go away on its own. I might say that if it isn’t Facebook, it’s someone else who will take advantage of the kind of niche FB has. Something like Facebook sort of has to exist, it seems. It might die of its own weight, but then something new will spring up and do the same sorts of things that are very bad for us personally and bad for democracy.

    But that’s not the basis of action. When people do things that are illegal and bad for us, we should stop them. We don’t handle criminal behavior with “Well, he’ll die eventually and stop doing those bad things”. I don’t find that an acceptable argument.

    And by the way, as far as I’m concerned, this is a Facebook problem, not a tech problem. People such as Cadwalladr above often tack on Google and Twitter with a “they are bad too”, but never specify how.Report

  5. Mark says:

    Lost in all this is the fact that using consumer welfare as the sole determining factor in applying anti-trust laws is fairly recent. Workers and the general public are greatly affected by monopolies, whether naturally occurring or not. Greater and greater concentration of power in business is just as corrosive and corruptible as in government. In the last few decades we’ve ignore that all because we can buy cheap goods.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to Mark says:

      Fair point, but how do you cut that knot? When is a company too big and having too much power? Once that is determined, how do you split it up such that you don’t potentially do more damage than just leaving it alone (especially if it was a relatively benign power)?

      And what about companies that never would have been able to get that big (or stay there) absent some manner of regulatory interference?

      Traditionally, monopolies that were in need of government intervention tended to exhibit specific behaviors that were harmful.Report

      • Mark in reply to Oscar Gordon says:

        I don’t have a satisfactory answer to that. A one size fits all approach would surely create more problems. And certain companies lend themselves to dismantling more easily. Amazon has such distinct lines of businesses that I’d imagine splitting them up would be less problematic than others.

        I don’t necessarily agree with Warren’s proposal, but I do give her credit for starting a conversation that needed to be had. I’m sure most people would acknowledge there should be some type of limit to a company’s size and market control. What that is and how do we address it is the hard part as you mention.

        For now I’d love to see these companies face some repercussions when they actual cross a legal/regulatory line. Amazon, Google and Facebook have clearly engaged in anti-competitive behavior, and all they get in the U.S. is a stern talking to from politicians with an appalling lack of understanding of anything technology-related.Report

      • This is one of my biggest issues with Warren’s proposal. She seems to be mostly targeting companies that are unpopular in progressive circles without really investing a lot of thought into it. Amazon’s position is different from Facebook’s is different from Google’s. Hard to think a one-size-fits-all approach works for all three.Report

  6. James K says:

    I agree with your analysis of the issues Michael. Protecting competition is an efficiency-enhancing use of government power, but that relies on government power being employed on the right targets in the right way. Barriers to entry are much more important than market concentration when it comes to encouraging competition.

    If entry and exit to the various technology industries is still sufficiently easy, the the size of the companies in that industry doesn’t matter as they will not have much market power to exploit in spite of their size. If entry has become harder than that is the problem that needs to be solved, and setting an arbitrary size threshold and punishing any company over it will do nothing to solve the real problem.Report

  7. j r says:

    Good post, Michael. But if I’m being honest, I feel like a rube for even commenting on this. It’s a trap. All of this has happened before (with the railroads and the oil industry and the telecoms, etc.) and all of this will happen again with the next big technology that gets big enough to challenge the government for supremacy.

    Why should we pretend that this is going to be handled in a way that has any meaningful impact from us as citizens and consumers? The outcome will be negotiated almost strictly between the two parties and stage manages in such a way that suggests civic participation, but is mostly devoid of it. The tech companies will come to the table with their demands, focused on product development and preserving market share. And the government will come to the table with its demands, focused on maximizing revenue and bureaucratic reach. And both parties will come to some agreement that gives them both most of what they want at the expense of us.

    And I don’t say any of this to sound dystopian. Maybe the new equilibrium will give us most everything we want for not too high a cost. I honestly have no idea. What I do know is that I resent Elizabeth Warren and people like her who want to try to make me believe that this is going to go any other way.Report

  8. DensityDuck says:

    The problem is that everyone who gets on the internet needs about two years of being an absolute tool before they figure out how to behave, but back in the 1990s that happened on USEnet or IRC, where nobody could see it who wasn’t already there. These days your Tweets go on the evening news and your Facebook posts get sent to your boss, so all the internet-juvenile-delinquency hangs around your neck until the end of time.

    So. I’d argue that the problem isn’t any particular company being too big; the problem is that social media is a part of society, and people need to learn how to be a part of society, and so far the attitude that the Internet is just nerds’n’porn is making people not take it seriously.

    And, heck, it’s not like people in general are particularly good at being in society in the first place. It’s 2019 and scams invented before telephones existed are still catching scared uncles and well-meaning housewives.Report

    • Oscar Gordon in reply to DensityDuck says:

      This. Seriously, if the government wants to make FB, IG, Twit, etc. better, they could simply demand that new accounts are set to max privacy by default, and stay that way until the user is 18, and or at least a year has passed before they can start touching the settings.Report