Standing behind a podium earlier this month, New York Attorney General Letitia James delivered a blunt message to Facebook.
“No company should have this much unchecked power over our personal information and our social interactions,” James said, as she announced a massive lawsuit that alleges the social media giant engaged in illegal anticompetitive behavior to maintain its dominance in social networking. Forty-seven other attorneys general, representing almost the entire country, took part in the Dec. 11 complaint.
The day only got worse for Facebook. The Federal Trade Commission, the country’s top antitrust regulator, filed a similar lawsuit against the company.
The lawsuits mark a major turning point in federal and state efforts to rein in Facebook’s expansive power. By snapping up rivals, such as photo service Instagram and messaging service WhatsApp, the company quashes competition, critics say. Even some Facebook insiders, such as co-founder Chris Hughes, want the social network to spin off WhatsApp and Instagram. The FTC and state lawsuits set the stage for such a breakup, though legal experts say that’s an unlikely outcome. The social network has argued a breakup won’t address important issues such as safeguarding user privacy.
Facebook isn’t the only social network lawmakers and regulators are targeting. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission fined Twitter this year for allegedly violating a European data privacy law. Last week, the European Union unveiled new proposals meant to encourage competition and require online platforms to police offensive content more aggressively. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, along with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, heard criticism from lawmakers who are looking at changing a federal law that shields online platforms from liability for user content. The Trump administration threatened to ban Chinese-owned TikTok over national security concerns.
“The problem is you have a handful of powerful companies that control the economy, control the public discourse and control all of our data,” said Gigi Sohn, a fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a former senior adviser to the Federal Communications Commission.
The unfolding legal battles are likely a precursor to tech regulation in 2021. President-elect Joe Biden has raised concerns about misinformation on social networks, telling The New York Times earlier this year that he isn’t a big fan of Facebook or Zuckerberg. That might mean new proposals for regulating tech will be presented to Congress, though it’s unclear if any new legislation could pass.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Facebook global affairs boss Nick Clegg said it’s “inevitable” Facebook and other tech companies will face more regulation in the future. But he cautioned US lawmakers against hindering the flow of online data and building digital barriers the way China has.
“The Biden administration could now help secure what is left of the global Internet from the dark cloud of digital protectionism and keep it open, accessible and safe for generations to come,” Clegg said in the op-ed.
Lawmakers have signaled that they’re looking more closely at the power big tech companies wield. In July, Zuckerberg testified alongside Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook in a marathon hearing before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee.
The subcommittee’s Democratic leadership released a 449-page report in October accusing Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook of abusing monopoly power. This dominance, the report concluded, has harmed consumers. “In the absence of competition, Facebook’s quality has deteriorated over time, resulting in worse privacy protections for its users and a dramatic rise in misinformation on its platform,” the report said.
The report also provided a glimpse into what solutions lawmakers are looking at to encourage more competition.
Breaking up the companies is among the proposals, along with halting major tech mergers, barring tech giants from providing preferential treatment to their own products and requiring companies to make it possible for users to transfer their data to other online platforms. The subcommittee also recommended strengthening antitrust laws and enforcement.
Though Facebook denies that it competes unfairly, the social network has called for more internet regulation around harmful content, election integrity and privacy. The company also supports the idea of making it easier to move your data to other services.