Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 20 February 2021



Facebook news ban: Thuggery shows why we must move fast to fix it

There is a comforting sameness to Facebook’s bungling of its move this week to prevent Australians from accessing news on its platform.

By blocking organisations such as UNICEF, Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital and Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, the ACTU, the Bureau of Meteorology and ACT Health – none of which could plausibly be deemed to be suppliers of the news services that are now banned from its platform – Facebook only did what it has always done, what its CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised the company would do in the very first letter he wrote to prospective shareholders back in 2012.

It moved fast, and broke things.

From Myanmar, Sri Lanka and New Zealand (where Facebook’s refusal to censor hate speech led to mass killings) to the United States (where Facebook’s willingness to sell its data to Cambridge Analytica led to the manipulation of a presidential election) Facebook has always cut a swathe of destruction, moving fast and breaking things anywhere and everywhere its corporate greed should take it.

The damage that Facebook did in Australia this week, both to its own brand and to the organisations that relied on its platform, is in that sense completely and reassuringly predictable.

Former Facebook Australia boss Stephen Scheeler says Facebook is trying to slow the global regulation of big tech platforms.  Dominic Lorrimer

But what’s not so reassuring is the flipside of Facebook’s five-word corporate motto “Move Fast And Break Things”, a flipside that has been laid bare, not in public letters to shareholders, but in private email exchanges between Facebook staff, in lawsuits filings, in Facebook’s battle with Apple over user privacy, and now in Facebook’s approach to regulation in Australia.

Like the official motto, the apparent corporate ethos could also be summed up in five, short words: move slow to fix things.

Delaying tactic

As Facebook Australia’s former CEO Stephen Scheeler pointed out this week, if Facebook’s refusal to engage in the proposed News Media Bargaining Code is about anything at all, it’s about Facebook’s desire to slow the pace of global regulation of Big Tech.

Rather than allow Australia to create a regulatory precedent for other nations to quickly follow, it threw a spanner in the works, not in the hope of avoiding regulation altogether – regulators around the world have Facebook in their cross-hairs, and they’re coming – but merely as a delaying tactic.

It’s not the first time Facebook has sought to maximise its short-term profit by fixing problems only slowly.

In the Cambridge Analytica scandal, emails emerged showing that Facebook was fully aware that data was being hoovered off its platform in contravention of its Platform Policies months before the scandal broke in the press, but failed to do anything about it until it became a “PR issue” with the publication of the Guardian newspaper’s expose in December 2015.

It’s worth noting that the emails only surfaced when the Attorney General of the US District of Columbia demanded them as part of a consumer protection lawsuit. It’s also worth noting that the emails directly contradict Facebook’s public position, that it was as surprised as anyone when the expose appeared.

Move slow to fix things.

Just this week, emails emerged in another Facebook lawsuit, suggesting that Facebook executives knew the company was over-billing its advertising customers, but they were slow to act because fixing the over-billing error would result in a reduction in billing revenues.

In January, a US District Court judge agreed to unseal documents that Facebook had requested be sealed as part of a class-action lawsuit over Facebook’s inclusion of fake user accounts in tools it used to calculate how much clients should be billed for advertising. The lawsuit was brought by an advertiser that complained Facebook was supplying it with “inflated and misleading” user numbers.

Those unsealed documents appeared on Thursday, the very day Facebook was blocking news feeds in Australia, and contained the explosive allegation that senior Facebook executives knew that Facebook’s “Potential Reach” tool was overestimating reach by counting fake accounts, but did nothing to rectify the problem for at least two years because the “revenue impact” for Facebook would be “significant”.

In one internal email quoted in the documents, a Facebook employee argued against the decision not to fix the billing error, writing “it’s revenue we should have never made given the fact it’s based on wrong data”.

Move slow to fix things.

Meanwhile, Facebook is actively trying to slow the pace of global privacy reform, taking out full-page ads in the American media complaining that Apple will destroy small businesses if it goes ahead with its planned upgrade to privacy settings on iPhones and iPads.

As part of its own mission to position itself as the champion of user privacy, Apple plans to update its mobile device operating system, making it impossible for app developers to track a user’s activity and share that data with advertisers, without that user’s explicit permission.

In its anti-Apple ads, Facebook complains that Apple’s change will limit the ability of small businesses to run personalised ads and that, “To make ends meet, many will have to start charging you subscription fees or adding more in-app purchases, making the internet much more expensive and reducing high-quality free content.”

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