The headline of the New York Times’ eye-opening Nov. 14 investigation into Facebook Inc.’s handling of the past year’s torrent of bad news was “Delay, Deny and Deflect.”
In a hearing last month at the ludicrously named International Grand Committee on Disinformation and “fake news” in London, it became clearer than ever what the social network giant is trying to keep out of the public discussion: antitrust.
Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg’s non-appearance is itself a red herring. He was never going to turn up. The structure of the event, which saw lawmakers from nine countries convene at a U.K. parliamentary select committee, would have been far more likely to elicit a faux pas from the 34-year-old than its Capitol Hill equivalent, since each lawmaker has greater expertise in the field and more time to quiz the subject.
Instead, Richard Allan, Facebook’s European lobbying chief, took questions, and the committee ensured there was an empty seat behind a placard with Zuckerberg’s name on it — a barely disguised effort to generate a photo opportunity for the morning newspapers.
Allan seemed willing to give ground on regulation, but with caveats. When asked if Facebook needed a firmer set of rules to deal with political ads, Allan replied “to the extent that there is a simple playbook to work to, that would be incredibly helpful.”
But that concession might come at the expense of a broader debate. If it can focus attention on fake news, political advertising and campaigning, Facebook can draw the conversation away from the far more existential issue of antitrust, and whether it has an excessively dominant position in social media and mobile advertising.
The question was raised at the end of the hearing by Charlie Angus, a Canadian member of parliament. The combined reach of Instagram, WhatsApp, Messenger and Facebook is something that should be addressed, he posited. Before Allan had a chance to give a full answer, the committee chair called an end to the proceedings. Unfortunately, he deemed it beyond the scope of the hearing.
Attacking the consumer-facing platforms only scratches the surface. Facebook has a significant position in mobile advertising, and perhaps it should be forced to share more meaningful aggregated data with advertisers. That might pick away at its power, and force it to find other ways to monetize users other than securing their attention with content that includes ads.
A broader conversation beyond political advertising is essential, despite the company’s best efforts to convince us otherwise. Facebook’s approach is to restrict public policy debate to political subjects, but just as worrying are the vast reams of personal data that it holds and its outsized role in dictating how people interact.
I’m not going to follow my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Joe Nocera in advocating an outright breakup of the company.
There’s no guarantee that an alternative player would be any more responsible than Facebook has been.
But while Facebook waves the white flag on political content with one hand, it’s hoping that we don’t notice the powerful position it holds with the other.
Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe’s technology, media and communications industries.