Loading…
0:00
5:00

Facebook is not a monopoly

The social network is huge, globe-spanning even, but it hasn’t cornered the market on social media

Of all the exchanges between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and U.S. Senators during Tuesday’s Capitol Hill hearing on Facebook’s mishandling of users’ data, this was one of my favorite.

Senator Lindsay Graham was making a case for how Facebook’s dominance in its field might be considered monopolistic. “You don’t think you have a monopoly?” Senator Graham asked Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg shot back, “Certainly doesn’t feel like it to me,” which elicited one of the few laughs during the nearly seven hours of testimony.

It would not be the first time Senators would raise the specter of “monopoly” or the last time Zuckerberg would explain all the social media options that exist outside of Facebook.

For me, though, the answer is obvious. I’ve seen monopolies. I know how monopolies work and, Facebook, you are no monopoly.

It’s not like the Senators, many of whom have been in Congress for decades, don’t know this. One even noted how he hadn’t seen a tech hearing like this since the days of Microsoft when, yes, Congress was peppering then CEO Bill Gates with questions about the apparent software monopoly.

When Gates had to answer those questions in 1998, Microsoft had locked virtually all the major PC manufacturers into delivering their computers with the Windows operating system. Those Windows systems also happened to come with Microsoft’s Web browser, Internet Explorer, pre-installed. This helped accelerate (some would say “caused”) the demise of Netscape and led to complaints that Microsoft’s effective operating system monopoly was giving it an unfair advantage in the browser market. Gates disagreed, but there’s no disputing the fate of formerly leading browser Netscape, which few remember now. Microsoft was eventually forced to decouple Internet Explorer from Windows, which may have helped open the door for competing browsers like Google’s Chrome.

While some of the questions and concerns echoed those the senators had two decades ago, Microsoft and Facebook’s situation could not be more different.

Facebook is a social network that operates on multiple operating systems. It has multiple apps, like Messenger and Instagram that feed into it. Because it traverses platforms and borders, it has over 2 billion users, more than double that of Windows 10. I know, 2 billion users, almost a third of the world’s population, sure sounds like a monopoly. But it’s not. A monopoly is defined not by numbers, but by choice.
 
When Microsoft dominated the system platform and Web browser space, they did it by taking choice away from consumers. If you bought a PC, you bought a Windows PC (you could buy a Mac, but only from one company, Apple), and if you bought it in the time of Windows 95, your Web browser was Internet Explorer.
 
Though Zuckerberg and Facebook have, over the past decade, done everything they can to keep you inside the platform (adding news, games, live videos, a never-ending supply of FOMO), no one has to install Facebook to run their computer. More importantly, they don’t have to use Facebook to have a social media experience. They can use Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and, outside the U.S., there are even more choices.
 
For proof of those options, you need look no further than the Zuckerberg hearings. You could, and many did, watch and discuss them on Facebook. But I saw tens of thousands of people watching and commenting on the hearings on Twitter. I particularly enjoy when Twitter users complain on Twitter that Facebook is a monopoly.
 
I’m not trying to defend Facebook. It’s clear from today’s testimony that even Zuckerberg agrees Facebook messed up. But the missteps are not the product of a monopoly gone wrong. It’s a company that willfully ignored the ramifications of a fully interconnected world. Its primary goal was, ultimately, radioactive for a good part of our population.

Our Facebook connections opened the door to the thoughts and opinions of our friends and neighbors, and not all of it was pretty or aligned with our own worldview. All that personal data drives Facebook’s huge mobile ad business, but that deep well of consumer data is also catnip for unscrupulous data brokers like Aleksandr Kogan and every nation-state bad actor on the planet. Yes, Facebook’s algorithms and lack of oversight let the Russians play us like a fiddle and revealed in the starkest terms how little we really know about how Facebook works, what it collects from us and what third parties can do with all that data.
 
Yet none of that proves Facebook is a monopoly.

For Senators to ask that and consumers on social media to believe it means they want the same kind of monopoly-busting remedies to be applied to Facebook as they were to Microsoft, the phone company (“Ma Bell”) and the film studios that, at the time, also owned theater chains in the early part of the 20th century.
 
Breaking up Facebook (into what?) is not the solution. Some data and privacy policy regulation are, and a little more personal responsibility might help, too.