Ignore the misguided calls for antitrust enforcement. Net neutrality is the way to keep social media free.
I’m chief executive officer of a social network that competes with Facebook , so you might expect I’d agree with those seeking to break up Facebook in the name of fair competition. In fact, I strongly oppose the idea. I don’t believe Facebook is a monopoly.
Regulatory officials, presidential candidates and even a Facebook co-founder are among those who’ve asserted that Facebook has become so big and powerful that it stifles all competitors, leaving social-media users nowhere else to turn. Yet my company, MeWe, is not only surviving but thriving. The free market is alive and kicking.
One reason Facebook is vulnerable to competition is that its business practices are off-putting to social-media users. According to a 2018 Pew survey, 44% of users 18 to 29 deleted Facebook the prior year. As I’ve often said, Facebook is a data company masquerading as a social network. Facebook’s business is based on harvesting data from its users, both on the site and off, then charging advertisers to target them.
In contrast, MeWe is a full-featured social network engineered with privacy-by-design that’s freemium-based with no ads, targeting or newsfeed manipulation. Marketers and election meddlers cannot target or boost anything to anyone. These are significant competitive differentiations.
Those advocating Facebook’s breakup cite antitrust enforcements throughout American history as precedents. But they don’t square with today’s realities. In 1911, when the Supreme Court ordered the Standard Oil Trust to break up into 34 independent companies, it had rock-solid reason to do so. Standard owned 90% of U.S. oil production and engaged in the unfair practice of jacking up prices in areas with no competition and lowering prices where competition was active. Facebook cannot underprice its competitors out of existence because most social networks are free.
In U.S. v. Paramount Pictures (1948), the high court ruled against movie studios that used their ownership of theaters to ensure that only their own pictures were shown. This prevented smaller studios from distributing their films and moviegoers from seeing them. Today, content creators are free to distribute their content anywhere on the web, and Facebook has no way of preventing users from accessing that content.
In the 1970s, AT&T was the sole telephone provider in most of the U.S., and most phone equipment was produced by an AT&T subsidiary, Western Electric. This screamed monopoly, which is why the government forced AT&T to split into seven “Baby Bells” in 1984. A clear difference between the old AT&T and Facebook is that the former left consumers with no options. If you wanted to phone your aunt, you had to use AT&T. This is not the case with Facebook; there are other social networks to choose from.
Some have argued that Facebook’s ability to outspend smaller social networks makes it impossible for them to compete. I’ve seen firsthand that this is not a competitive barrier. MeWe has achieved breakout growth from word-of-mouth alone.
Others have pointed to Facebook’s aggressive acquisition strategy—92 companies since 2007. Most have been technology companies specializing in areas such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition, along with social-networking and messaging apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp. While this may look like an anticompetitive strategy, there are still successful social networks such as Snapchat, Twitter , YouTube and MeWe. If today Facebook were to acquire Twitter or Snapchat, this would be of greater concern.
The way to keep social media truly competitive is not to break up Facebook but to reinstate net neutrality. That would even the playing field and allow startups to compete on equal footing with giants like Facebook and Google. If internet service providers start charging for special privileges such as internet “fast lanes,” deep-pocketed companies would be able to squeeze out smaller competitors that can’t afford such costs.
While Facebook should be held to account for transgressions such as privacy violations and election interference, breaking up the company wouldn’t solve these problems. It would likely create a handful of mini-Facebooks that engage in the same practices. Let the free market, secured by net neutrality, do its work. As users discover new social networks that fit their values and tastes, they, not regulators, will decide which ones thrive. Millions are already making their voices heard.