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Maybe This Internet Is Not Sustainable

Facebook needs to be broken up yesterday.

Screenshot: 60 Minutes

On Sunday, whistleblower and former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen told ’60 Minutes’ that “Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety.” In a video posted by the group Whistleblower Aid that same day, though, Haugen said the company could continue to exist in its current form.

“The path forward is about transparency and governance,” Haugen said. “It’s not about breaking up Facebook…we can have platforms we love and enjoy that are also safe.”

By Monday afternoon, Facebook had even bigger problems. Essentially the company’s entire infrastructure collapsed, taking down along with it the site and app as well as Instagram, WhatsApp, and some other useless bullshit. If you use Facebook to log into other sites and apps, an option that’s been readily available on a lot of these platforms for years, you were basically shit out of luck.

The temporary elimination of Facebook did not just mean a halt to Farmville requests and invitations from people in high school to join multilevel marketing scams. In Latin America, for instance, nearly all text communications and a substantial part of entire countries’ economies runs on WhatsApp; in other parts of the global south, Facebook has deliberately made itself synonymous with the internet as a whole, using its massive list of products to effectively monopolize online communication. Effectively one fuckup, blamed on “configuration changes on the backbone routers that coordinate network traffic between our data centers,” brought all of this crashing down.

Still, the outage had an almost immediate silver lining. Mark Zuckerberg lost an absurd amount of money, and for several hours some of the world’s most destructive and loathsome far-right anti-vaxxer bullshit wasn’t getting blasted out into the eyes of Boca Raton Uncles and Staten Island Aunts of the world.


Facebook’s Coronavirus Grift

But Monday’s debacle is also a reminder that allowing a handful of tech companies to monopolize the entire sector and bring it crashing down when they fail is probably not the most optimal situation for us all to be in. Add in the privacy and data nightmare, the defense and federal law enforcement contracts, the incredibly negative consequences on democracy, workers’ rights, public and mental health, etc., and it becomes more and more difficult to deny that these are our robber barons.

Facebook whistleblower’s faith in both Facebook’s leadership and regulators that the company as we know it can be fixed is utterly misplaced; in its current state, the company is approaching something like Too Big to Fail, and the only solution is to make it be less so.

Facebook isn’t the only one. Any attempt to boycott Amazon is doomed to fail because Amazon Web Services owns 40 percent or more of the cloud market. When AWS goes down, as it inevitably does at least once a year, it takes out not just Amazon itself but also the companies that use its cloud services, ranging pretty much the entire gamut of what people do on the internet: work, read, watch, etc.

It’s fun when one of these titans crashes and burns, even briefly, because it’s nice when bad people’s days are ruined. But Facebook was back by early Monday evening, and while it’s true that Mark Zuckerberg has lost nearly $20 billion in a matter of weeks, he now has just $121 billion and is only the world’s fifth-richest man. He will, regrettably, be fine.

In a better timeline, these companies would themselves be owned by the public, given what they do is clearly in the public interest. But in the timeline we live in you can’t even yell at a Senator without public debate collapsing into a fit of tears, so public takeovers of giant corporations with profits in the tens of billions are pretty much out of the question for the moment.

Right now, the best option is the Federal Trade Commission’s lawsuit accusing Facebook of illegally monopolizing the market, comparing the company’s conduct to effective bribery. The agency had to refile its lawsuit because, according to a federal judge, there wasn’t enough evidence that Facebook had actually done anything wrong.

There’s a new head of the FTC, Lina Khan, who’s much more competent and ideologically inclined against concentrated corporate power, and House Democrats have proposed an extra $1 billion in funding for the FTC to handle privacy abuses. Still, the fact that the FTC could not dig up enough evidence that Facebook had manipulated the market to merit the case even being heard does not exactly inspire confidence that they’ll be able to get the job done this time around. (Facebook again asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit Monday.)

But someone with actual power—the courts, Congress, and/or an emboldened and sufficiently resourced FTC—must stop the tech giants from continuing to corner every market imaginable and finally begin the long process of untangling this convoluted web of products from each other. Self-governance for a company like Facebook is a pipe dream; it’s long past time to give this horrible corporation the full Bell treatment and be done with it, hopefully forever.