Too big for comfort

| Updated on December 16, 2020 Published on December 16, 2020

The anti-trust lawsuits from the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 46 state attorneys general against Facebook are a significant move, given the unchecked influence the social media giant has over millions of Internet users across the world. This, along with the lawsuit filed by the United States Department of Justice against Google in October, marks a significant step towards curbing the growing monopolistic power of the Internet behemoths. From influencing consumer shopping behaviour to determining the political destiny of countries around the world, Facebook wields tremendous influence over daily life, commerce and democracy. The lawsuits call for a breakup of Instagram and WhatsApp from the parent firm. According to the case filed by the FTC, Facebook for many years, continued to engage in anticompetitive conduct, suppressing, neutralising, and deterring serious competitive threats. This mindset is reflected in an email sent by Mark Zuckerberg in 2008, where he wrote: “It is better to buy than compete.” Exemplifying this anti-competitive mindset, Facebook has over the years acquired a number of start-ups, including Instagram and WhatsApp, which had the potential to threaten Facebook’s dominance. Facebook has the power to acquire smaller rivals and, at the same time, consolidate user data under its umbrella platform. This could be dangerous for both consumers and the Internet economy, especially in countries like India where there are no laws to protect consumer data. Recent comments from Zuckerberg indicate that Facebook has its eyes fixed on India’s billion users.

Tech firms like Facebook offer their products and services for free so that they can collect customer data and sell them to advertisers. A platform which has been accused of not doing enough to prevent users’ data from being leaked to third party entities, that generated billions in profit, cannot be trusted to do its own policing. Facebook cannot also be trusted to regulate content on its platform without any bias. For instance, Zuckerberg defended his decision against taking down a post by US President Donald Trump citing the social network’s free speech principles. In sharp contrast, ahead of the general elections in India in 2019, Facebook took down 1,000 pages and accounts for allegedly engaging in coordinated inauthentic behaviour or spam. In that instance, there were no concerns about free speech expressed by the social media platform while taking down the pages.

The proceedings initiated against Facebook in the US should pave the way for similar scrutiny in India, too. This entails looking at how effectively the online platforms respond to allegations of anti-competitive practices or complaints of harmful content, with powers for a regulator to enforce standards and act if these are not met. Policymakers must, therefore, put in a framework that brings in transparency in terms of the responsibilities and duties of all stakeholders — the users, the intermediaries, and the government.

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Published on December 16, 2020
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