Margrethe Vestager is saying that the Facebook outage shows the need for more competition in social media. And she’s right, if you enjoyed that outage and would like to make it permanent, not in the sense that you will stop getting any social media, but in the sense of crossing half your friends off of your friends list forever. For that is what will happen in a world of “fifty different Facebooks” in which, by antitrust design, you are no longer permitted to belong to the same social media platform to which everyone else belongs.
What the Facebook outage tells us is not that we need more competition in social media; it tells us that we need more regulation. That Facebook is a public utility and if it does not voluntarily pour resources into service quality, as public utilities do, then we must force it to do that.
If Facebook had a smart, Theodore Newton Vail-like CEO, however, the political fallout from this outage would be enough to focus Facebook’s mind. Because firms that understand that they have become public utilities understand that they have become, through and through, political animals, satisfying political constituencies by delivering to them the services they demand, on pain of government intervention.
And that intervention is often intemperate, unreasoning, wrathful antitrust breakup, as indeed eventually happened to AT&T long after Vail, the company’s famous early-twentieth-century CEO—who charmed the public by delivering universal, reliable telephone service—departed. And as the FTC is threatening now.
Indeed, the only rationality about antitrust intervention against a natural monopoly like Facebook is that the anger that drives the intervention makes it a credible threat in spite of its unreason, rather the way that the likelihood that a thug will kill you for the slightest offense—and hence do time, quite irrationally, over nothing—puts you on your best behavior around him. Antitrust intimidates. The FTC intimidates. Vestager intimidates. That doesn’t make them rational in this context, but it does make them useful.
But is competition really irrational here? What about interoperability? Yes, of course we could make Facebook interoperable with other social media platforms. And that would enable us to use one platform to interact with users of other platforms, allowing us to keep all of our social media friends without having to submit to a single monopoly social media provider.
But think, please, about where that would take us: back to the Internet.
The decentralized communications system in which everyone is supposed to own their own server, which sometimes works and sometimes crashes, or rent space on someone else’s, which also sometimes works and sometimes not. And there is some standard-setting body out there promulgating protocols governing communication between these servers, the rules of which are voluntary and sometimes followed and sometimes not followed, enabling the servers sometimes to talk and sometimes not to talk.
It is the world of the bug, of feeling proud that, after five hours of hacking around and reading message boards, or repeated calls to IT, you finally got it to work.
It is the world in which the only reliable, stable mode of digital interaction was: email.
And even that wasn’t all that reliable, because it was the target of avalanches and avalanches of spam, itself a bug of decentralized networking that was only really solved, and then still imperfectly, by the centralization of email service under a single roof—Gmail—enabling a single artificial intelligence to learn to identify and filter the spam effectively.
The whole point of social media, what made us flee from the Internet and embrace Facebook, or its competitors (which social media platform didn’t really matter—it only mattered that everyone embraced the same one, allowing it to substitute for the Internet) was that these platforms weren’t platforms at all in the sense of an open field upon which anyone can play; they were integrated, centralized, organized spaces in which engineers could solve all of the problems of the Internet because they could control the entire space.
That’s right: they were never meant to be platforms; we loved them, from the beginning, precisely because they were walled gardens.
You couldn’t choose your own server or run your own software or handle almost any of your own configurations. And you didn’t have to run some client side program that sometimes made a connection to the network and sometimes didn’t. Facebook did all of that for you, and it was the network, so if you could log into Facebook you always had a connection.
That is what made possible a level of service quality so complete that the recent Facebook crash was memorable in the way that a New York City blackout is memorable: because it is rare (which is not to say that we shouldn’t insist that Facebook do better, just as we insist that the power company do better). It is also what made it possible to have feeds and likes and chat and friends all integrated buglessly into a single place.
The desire for interoperability is the desire to return to the Garden of Internet of the 1990s, the one we left because it wasn’t, actually, Eden.
And if you think misinformation is bad on Facebook, just imagine what it will be like when there are “fifty different (interoperable) Facebooks” and no central authority capable of deciding who can interoperate and spread news and who cannot.
(A potential saving grace here is that interoperation will be so clunky and bug prone, social media communication so degraded as a result of interoperability requirements, that the loss of the ability to regulate speakers will be offset by the slowdown in the speed with which misinformation is able to spread. We didn’t see misinformation as a threat on the old Internet because it was so much harder to communicate.)
Well, why can’t we have it both ways? Decentralize the administration but mandate the protocols and service quality and so on? The answer is: of course we can. But if we’re going to regulate all aspects of service, and hence retain the centralization of social media through the medium of the government rather than a private corporate entity, wouldn’t it be easier to, um, just regulate Facebook?
But that would deny us the pleasure of killing it.