In the Media

TEEN VOGUE – Facebook Is a Monopoly — Here’s Why That Matters

10. 10. 2021

This reported op-ed talks about how we rely so much on this single corporation.

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This op-ed originally appeared in TeenVogue.

This story is published as part of Teen Vogue’s 2021 Economic Security Project fellowship.

If there’s one thing we know about the internet, it’s that when all else fails, at least the jokes will be good. On October 4, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram all went offline, and the memes blossomed on Twitter almost immediately. Meanwhile, Facebook’s roughly 2.89 billion active users worldwide, along with more than 1 billion Instagram users and about 2 billion WhatsApp users, couldn’t access their accounts for nearly six hours.

The technology blackout came three weeks after The Wall Street Journal began publishing “The Facebook Files,” a series based on internal company documents that were leaked to the publication, and less than 24 hours after a 60 Minutes episode revealed the identity of the former Facebook product manager who leaked them.

The blackout also occurred on the same day that Facebook filed a legal motion to dismiss the latest complaint brought against the company by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), a government agency that enforces consumer protections, guards against predatory business practices, and ensures fair market competition. The lawsuit is part of the FTC’s recent emphasis on enforcing antitrust regulations on companies the agency argues function as monopolies within their industries.

In a statement to Teen Vogue, a Facebook spokesperson denied the allegations that the company functions as a monopoly. “Facebook competes vigorously every day with TikTok, iMessage, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, YouTube, and countless other platforms to help people share, connect, communicate, or simply be entertained,” the emailed statement reads. “We innovate and improve our products and services to earn people’s time and attention because we have to. Antitrust laws should promote competition and protect consumers, not punish successful American companies.”

Becky Chao, manager of the Economic Security Project’s Anti-Monopoly Fund and a former paralegal at the FTC, argues that the mass outage proves the exact opposite. “There’s a technical legal definition of monopoly used in antitrust law, but to put it plainly, we use monopoly to refer to corporations with excessive unchecked, private power over our lives,” Chao tells Teen Vogue. “[The] outage really showed the world what the risks are when a single corporation controls so much of our communication infrastructure. And coupled with [whistleblower] Francis Haugen’s [congressional] testimony, it’s now an indisputable fact that Facebook is simply not a good steward of our data. They’ve shown time and time again, through scandal after scandal, that they will keep putting profit over public safety, over our privacy, and [over] the public’s interests.”

According to a 2021 Pew Research survey, a notable chunk of Americans seem to share some skepticism of Big Tech, with 56% of U.S. adults saying they support more regulation of major tech companies, up from 47% in 2020. In that same survey, 68% of all U.S. adults say Big Tech companies have too much power and influence in the economy — a surprisingly bipartisan issue, with 64% of Democratic-leaning respondents and 74% of Republican-leaning respondents indicating the same. And many Democrats in Congress, including Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, have been vocal about their view that major tech companies play an outsize role in our lives and in the tech industry.

But perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the outage was that it revealed how much the rest of the world relies on Facebook’s platforms and services, which meant the outage was felt more severely outside of the U.S. than within its borders. For example, Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp is a popular alternative to traditional SMS text messaging because it can operate on a Wi-Fi connection for free rather than relying on a phone service. In countries where costs for domestic and international phone service, monthly minutes, and data are high, WhatsApp can be a much more affordable (if not entirely free) option. 

According to a 2020 Social Media Trends report from Global Web Index, Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, Argentina, Malaysia, Colombia, and Brazil have some of the highest WhatsApp user rates. In all seven countries mentioned, more than 90% of internet users between ages 16-64 are on WhatsApp. Importantly, WhatsApp also allows for free international communication, making it an especially popular app for diasporic communities and people who frequently communicate with family and friends across borders.

While the specific question of what to do about Big Tech and Facebook is front and center at the moment, Chao points out that monopolies are an issue in other industries too. The Economic Security Project is also engaged in anti-monopoly work that is focused on the pharmaceutical industry (Big Pharma), agriculture and farming, utilities, and more.

“It’s not just Big Tech that has followed these patterns of consolidation and concentration. The power of monopolies across the economy stifles competition and harms Americans in several ways — from high-cost and low-speed cable and internet service to price-gouging prescription meds,” says Chao. “Monopolies take advantage of imbalances of power between consumers and producers, between users and service providers, and between workers and employers, trapping us in unequal and sometimes even abusive relationships.”

One of the major criticisms of monopolies is that they prevent everyday consumers from being able to make their own choices about products and services that best fit their needs or preferences. When companies occupy the majority of a marketplace but also acquire additional companies in that same marketplace, they’re able to maintain an illusion that consumers have competitive options. Someone might think they’re choosing between separate brands, but in reality they’re contributing to the bottom line of a single major corporation that has little incentive to allow actual market competition that might improve the available options on the shelves.

Interestingly, Chao notes, this illusion of choice also makes boycott strategies a lot harder because you might not even realize certain businesses share the same parent company. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, for example, just 29% of respondents knew that WhatsApp and Instagram were owned by Facebook. As monopolies and other major corporations increase their size, reach, and portion of their industry, it becomes harder and harder to leverage enough consumer or worker power to seriously challenge them.

“Technology isn’t inherently bad by any stretch,” clarifies Chao, acknowledging that the anti-monopoly movement has a reputation as anti-tech. “We recognize that there’s just so many positive benefits to technology, particularly when it comes to digital organizing. It’s their consolidation of power that is really at issue here.”