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Science + Tech

Facebook’s Handy Identity Crisis

Publisher or bulletin board? Can it really give up news sharing? Why the tech giant works hard to resist definition.

Bryan Carney 16 Oct

Bryan Carney reports on privacy, technology and freedom of information and is director of web production at The Tyee. You can follow his very occasional tweets at @bpcarney.

What exactly even is Facebook? The question becomes more pressing as governments impose fines on the company for bad behaviour and mull whether to regulate, tax or even break up the social media platform. And as Facebook strikes back by saying, to one country at least, it could function just fine if it eliminated all links to news content from users of its platform.

Facebook’s nature and fate are being discussed in courts, tribunals and hearings in the U.S., European Union and Canada.

In the U.S., a Federal Trade Commission investigation is working to determine if Facebook “illegally maintained its dominance in social networking through acquisitions.” The company has bought more than 80 companies over the last 15 or so years, the New York Times reported.

In the EU, courts are examining whether the social network “uses its size to squeeze smaller rivals,” according to BNN Bloomberg. The question at the heart of that investigation centres on the company’s “sales platform and how it uses and shares data from apps,” said an expert.

In this country, the Competition Bureau recently fined Facebook $9 million for its “misleading claims about the privacy of Canadians’ personal information on Facebook and Messenger.”

But regulators in Canada have so far not determined how they will analyze the platform’s market size. And they still haven’t answered: What exactly even is Facebook?

Is it a dominant competitor among social media platforms as critics allege? Or, as Facebook has argued, is its real competition every destination on the internet?

Is it a friendly helper in building news audiences, or designed to rip off news outlets by profiting from news content without paying for it?

Is Facebook just a bulletin board where people happen to tack stuff?

Or — key question — is Facebook a publisher? “In public it says no, in court it says yes,” wrote the Guardian, citing speeches, interviews and arguments Facebook made to the U.S. Congress back in 2018.

One might assume questions like these would have been settled for Facebook long ago, yet only now are company representatives being pressured to define the juggernaut that employs them. To date, what they’ve said has not been at all consistent.

When Facebook argues publicly it’s not really a publisher, it seeks to skirt any public accountabilities and editorial liabilities its algorithms might incur. Then again, Facebook has argued that in the U.S. it should enjoy the First Amendment rights and freedom of the press protections accorded to publishers.

When Facebook claims it’s just in the business of social media, that contradicts what the company’s lobbyists told congressional staffers earlier this year. They made the case that Facebook vies for eyeballs with newspapers, broadcast networks, video games and online message boards.

“Our competition, they say, isn’t just Twitter, Snapchat and TikTok,” concluded one tech analyst. If this sweeping argument was applied to the offline entertainment industry, it would be like putting NASCAR in the same market as Cirque du Soleil, the opera and every blockbuster showing at a Cineplex Odeon theatre.

What game were Facebook’s lobbyists playing? Likely trying to fend off the prospect of prosecution for monopolistic practices. If Facebook could be seen to be competing with everything on the internet rather than just other social media, it might be viewed as controlling a far less dominant market share.

In Australia, anti-trust actions against Facebook are underway, aimed squarely at its handling of news. National regulators are thinking of forcing Facebook to pay cash-starved news outlets for the right to link to pull summaries of their original content. Facebook’s response is to threaten to simply remove all news links from its Australian platform rather than pay.

It’s not the first time Facebook has made such a threat. Once again, it claims losing news would be no big deal to its bottom line. News links make up “only a very small fraction of the content in the average Facebook users’ newsfeed,” it wrote in a submission to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Facebook further claims it would suffer no advertising losses from such a move in Australia, noting it wasn’t hurt when it deprioritized news content in its algorithms.

Here in Canada, Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault has proclaimed it “immoral” for Facebook to use news content without paying for it.

Still, regulators in this country have only gestured mildly towards making a move similar to Australia’s. And prominent voices on internet policy, including the noted professor Michael Geist and B.C.-based internet freedom advocates Open Media, have advocated against charging Facebook for news links.

Geist argues that if Canada wants to raise funds for its news media and other cultural industries, a far simpler approach is to make tech companies pay their fair share of taxes into general coffers.

If Facebook bans links to news outlets, some argue, misinformation grifters will also lose any ability to be confused with legitimate journalism and could therefore lack incentive to post their content on Facebook’s platform. Photo via Pixabay, Creative Commons.

While the debate continues, let’s carry Facebook’s threat to its logical conclusion. What would happen if the world’s authorities banded together to force Facebook to show its hand — either by implementing a sweeping global news ban or paying for the privilege to host links to news sites?

Consider the paradox that while Facebook is enormously wealthy, its dominance is precarious. Facebook aimed to remind itself of that fact by placing the sign on its Silicon Valley headquarters over the street-facing portion of what used to be the corporate pillar of Sun Microsystems, yesterday’s tech giant now fallen. The covered logo, visible to Facebook employees, serves as a reminder of how fleeting market dominance can be.

Facebook’s leaders know their fate hinges on a fragile decision made by its potential users, played out billions of times over. To sustain the flow of ad dollars that lures talented tech workers to the wonderland blocks of Menlo Park, replete with buffets, daycares and woodworking studios, the rest of us web users must keep tapping the app or directing a web browser to It’s that simple. Facebook, unlike Microsoft, Apple or Google, does not yet make devices, nor the operating system or web browser that support and influence which apps or sites may be visited on them. Facebook must, in every way it can, lure people to its grand hub.

Could Facebook, increasingly singled out for its failures to check against disinformation and tendency to encourage radicalization, afford to become a virtual desert of legitimate news?

Could it afford to lose the small counterbalance of legitimacy and the partnerships it has worked hard to foster, for instance through its $300-million journalism projects that provide grants and training to news sites?

It is claiming that it can. It does so at a moment when the site’s growth is beginning to lean on older age groups in Facebook’s most profitable North American markets. This demographic happens to be more likely to share “intentionally or systematically factually inaccurate” stories on the site. In large part it’s because they are generally less able to distinguish fake news sources from legitimate ones. In other words, they are poor at selecting the good fruit from the rotten. But if Facebook removes all the good fruit from its bin, will the rotten apples be more seen for what they are and avoided?

If so, can Facebook risk a resulting drop-off in the level of engagement with posted content by users? We know when Facebook’s reputation was damaged in Europe and North America by privacy and election fake news scandals in 2018 usage trends suffered clear setbacks.

That’s user behaviour. What about advertisers? They historically have aimed to associate their messages with content deemed trustworthy and informative. Prominent brands seeking this halo effect may begin to question the value of ad slots on a site lacking the presence of vetted journalism. The National Enquirer still sells ads, according to this rate card from 2019, but its clientele and what they’ll pay are likely different than for Wired or People.

Some have argued that creators of misinformation, already problematic on the platform, could have the run of Facebook if it bans news. Others point out such grifters will also lose any ability to be confused with legitimate journalism and could therefore lack incentive to post their content on Facebook’s platform.

Which bring us back to the question at hand. What exactly even is Facebook?

The platform launched its own news section in the U.S. last year, paying chosen outlets for content that can be read on the platform in a separate “tab” rather than be linked to on an outside site. The company announced in August that it plans to soon expand that feature to other countries. Australia is not on that list.

Facebook isn’t hiring reporters or editors to produce stories for this section. Yet. But the move certainly makes Facebook look much more like a publisher. Which may mean it could face pressure from regulators to bear responsibility for this content posted to its platform.

Will countries around the world see it that way? Will Canada? Figuring out what Facebook is and therefore how it should be made to meet its responsibilities will be the task of courts and government in Canada in the coming months.

Among the witnesses they might call to testify is Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Last year he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times saying it’s time to “break up Facebook’s monopoly and regulate the company to make it more accountable.” At the time, Hughes said he hadn’t talked with his fellow Facebook co-founder in two years. But in the intervening period, he said, both the reputation of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook itself had taken a “nose-dive” because of “sloppy privacy practices,” democratic interference and the “unbounded drive to capture ever more of our time and attention.”

What exactly even is Facebook? Hughes sees a destructive monolith in need of dismantling. And that definition is the one his former colleagues fear most.  [Tyee]

Read more: Media, Science + Tech

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