Mark Zuckerberg. Demotix/Lino De Vallier. All rights reserved.Many online platforms are eager to up their market share by controlling more of what their users see. Almost none have made quite as much progress on this as Facebook. I here describe two recent innovations from the firm, “Instant Articles” and “internet.org” to give a sense of Facebook’s capacity to shape the communications landscape.
A great number of the key measures of social network market share point to Facebook's dominance, including as a source of media traffic. Whether the term 'monopoly' is accurate here is an unnecessary complexity. For the purposes of this discussion, the immense market position it enjoys in managing the public's communications is sufficient to warrant questioning the classification of its service.
This is a story of media hegemony on an unprecedented scale. It is about the free flow of information as key to democracy and the trouble we have effectively engaging that as a society.
Rupert Murdoch features in a Facebook staff handbook to exemplify media control. Credit: Ben Barry. Some rights reserved."Historically, those who controlled the media controlled the message. If you're the only one with a printing press, you control what people read. Same with radio. Same with TV. But what happens when everyone can put their message in front of a lot of people? When the playing field is level? When everyone has a printing press, the ones with the best ideas are the ones people listen to."
Unless Facebook shapes coverage because it runs the playing field. Unless it decides to show you something to alter your mood. The quotation above is an excerpt from a Facebook staff handbook which heralds a departure from the Murdoch era of media control. Does the firm deny that it dominates the 'digital printing press'? Whether or not its news feed algorithms purposefully affect info-flow today, nothing forbids that in future. An enormous amount of power lies in the closed code that they deploy.
Net neutrality: the right to a level playing field
Mobil World Congress. Demotix/Matthias Oesterle. All rights reserved.At the time of writing, ‘net neutrality’ is a big campaign issue, recently the focus of US legislative acrobatics and tireless mobilisation. Net neutrality serves the idea of the internet as a level, public space: it demands that one piece of content (by a broke blogger, for example) can be accessed with the same speed and availability as any other piece of content (by a paying corporation, for example), no matter what commercial Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would prefer.
As I explain some developments from Facebook, and their significance for free information, I hold in mind the recent classification of the internet as a utility with net neutrality at its heart. This reaffirms that free and fully accessible public expression is a defensible condition of network service provision.
Regulator Tom Wheeler noted the internet's status as a “core of free expression and democratic principles” as reason to uphold net neutrality; the fact that this idea determines legislative treatment colours the debate about what kind of beast Facebook has become. If it assumes so much control that it significantly alters who sees what and how, the effect on access to information will be similar to that of ISPs throttling content for cash, whilst possibly affecting a wider customer base. If the legislative problem is about a level playing field, the Facebook effect cannot prudently be ignored. Despite change rendering even web monoliths precarious, network effects make the biggest players something more than just another firm in a marketplace. Facebook may require us to rethink what sort of thing can be considered a public utility.
“Instant Articles” make the web faster…on Facebook
A recent product from Facebook, “Instant Articles” is an integration of full pieces from publishers directly inside of Facebook. A user can now click on an article in their news feed, and immediately see the full thing, rich and colourful in Facebook, without wasting 8 seconds to leave and load it at the publisher's website.
How to wall a garden. Credit: openDemocracy. Some rights reserved.
On one reading, this is a boon for all. Facebook's technical prowess makes news and media smoother and more enjoyable. That's what great firms do, bettering service both for publishers, advertisers and users.
However, this is also something like the ‘walled garden’ tendency common to commercial providers who seek to control users. Instant Articles reduce the reasons to leave Facebook. Users then spend longer within Facebook, consuming media as they socialise. Facebook continues to curate the user news feed that acts as an ever greater tributary of all internet content. This feature is visible elsewhere as publisher platforms become prevalent, but Facebook is the main contender.
Voices are being priced out
Small publishers, bloggers, charities, community organisations, and anyone without big money to pay for publicity have a troubled relationship with Facebook as a communications platform. It has long been known that Facebook is where so many users can most efficiently be found. Many took to it heartily when it seemed like a free arena, but things have changed. The company keeps making it costlier to communicate even with those users who have asked to follow your output. Facebook judges whether your content is worthy for visibility, and makes sure it is visible if you pay.
“It is great to see Facebook trialing new ways for quality journalism to flourish on mobile,” beamed Tony Danker, international director of Guardian News and Media. Big players are jumping to use the slick new tool, potentially to the detriment of the open internet. In a coded nod to hoped-for reciprocation between producer and jostling delivery platform, the Guardian man adds that: "It is then vital that, over time, Instant Articles delivers recurring benefit for publishers, whose continued investment in original content underpins its success.” It seems clear who holds the levers in this transaction.
Developments such as Instant Articles make media ever more dependent on Facebook as a delivery platform. In light of recent transgressions, and in more general terms, we'd better consider its suitability to the role.
“This is just about performance!”
What Facebook is doing here, it may be argued, is merely a performance boost. This sort of thing makes the internet a better place and drives others to improve their own site performance. However, this argument must be heard in light of the fact that Instant Articles are most tempting to publishers because so many users already start their journey to news sites at Facebook. Facebook's dominance means publishers have little choice but to sign up to the offering.
Some commentators already take the consolidation of internet media distribution as a premise, with diagnoses affirming that "if you’re worried about Facebook hosting news content… you’re already dead." The processes by which that consolidation may occur are still evolving. We all have a prerogative to consider how public interests are brought to bear on it.
The supermarketisation of web media
Until recently, media titles saw visitors online come to their property directly, which meant a small blog was equally capable of receiving the same traffic as a mega-corp.
Tesco market share, 2014. Credit: Economics Help. Some rights reserved.We might observe that the concentration and consolidation of online platforms is comparable with the spread of supermarkets. This move makes Facebook more like Walmart, Tesco and Lidl, stocking the products of others on its shelves. It is therefore more important than ever for the content producers to strengthen their own brands and exude value on those shelves.
Social media traffic referrals. Credit: Shareaholic. Some rights reserved.If we press this comparison and ask "were Facebook a supermarket, how big would it be?" we get a sense of the market power involved. If the open web is like a high street of mixed ownership, Facebook is on course to buy up more retail real estate than any supermarket ever before. Network effects and other hallmarks of the digital realm make such impact possible.
Social login preferences. Credit: Janrain. Used by permission.This is a reality media producers will learn about, adapt to and often die from. It's not an obviously healthy reconfiguration of the market, and we should challenge it.
Bastardised, free, 'Internet' for all, from Facebook
The second development on the table is “internet.org”, a portal where Facebook, in league with mobile networks, offers free, highly-limited web access to the populations of poor countries.
Who owns the Internet(.org)?
Private or public domain? Internet.org is a grand title for anything other than the actual internet. Does Facebook claim copyright over this name, or the idea (the official site doesn't enlighten)? If so, the task of public reclamation is due. If not, we must be free to use that brand and idea as a public good.
Anyone with a phone, but no mobile data plan, will have free access to a subset of the net, featuring Facebook, Wikipedia and a small bunch of services dictated by the network.
Eventually, the plan assumes that users will migrate to the real, open Facebook, where all content is freely accessible underpinned by net neutrality.
Of course, poorer users may never be able to move off of this plan. Even if they do, their conception of Facebook, one imagines, could be akin to that of state welfare benefactor, or they may equate it with the internet itself; the branding certainly doesn't enable any distinction.
Facebook India campaign. All rights reserved."Is connectivity a human right?" asks Mark Zuckerberg leadingly, suggesting the primary motivation for internet.org. This emphasis on development and human rights has failed to close down the growing, global mobilisation against internet.org (as seen in internet.not). Marches have been held while open letters and petitions circulate.
Whilst it's impossible to ignore the inevitable commercial impetus for this project, one needn't dissect Zuckerberg's moral complex to see this as an effort to give the poor internet through Facebook's self-serving hose pipe.
Internet.org home page. All rights reserved.
The centrality of net neutrality concerns in this case is clear as Facebook moves to become an internet super-carrier. Not only does this project propose to create a Facebook-curated connection where a world of competition cannot be accessed, it plans to make this the only probable choice for billions globally. This would make a world de facto denied the right to net neutrality, something which we take to be a democratic basis for free expression.
Discourse driven by ideas, not cash
openDemocracy has a remit to issue pluralist, commons material to inform the public discourse. We came to life on the internet, a newly even terrain for important ideas to reach the audience they deserved, regardless of publicity budgets.
Where we see that terrain squeezed and reconstituted, we have a duty to defend it, for the sake of public discourse driven by ideas instead of cash.
In this case, we have a duty to observe problematic developments and highlight open alternatives. All media must adapt and endorse novelty (this article is also available to read on the new publishing platform Fold) in this unfolding era of destructive reinvention, whilst remaining mindful of market constitution. Some commentators, meanwhile, are happy to merely watch the dust settle as a supposedly inevitable power play reshuffles our information superhighways.
If we are ultimately forced to acquiesce to the commercial option (openDemocracy, for example, already has most of its social media on Facebook), that should follow a critical as much as pragmatic analysis. That criticism must be heard and acted on meaningfully.
Facebook could be the most advanced, all-encompassing techno-social system ever known. It has extraordinary leverage, at every level, in deciding the design and structure of information flow. We should be scrutinising those decisions, asking whether they're right and seeking action, whatever that may be, at every level.
Solutions for hegemony?
Mark Zuckerberg. Flickr/Maurizio Pesce. Some rights reserved.I would prefer this to be an effective rallying cry, part of a civilised, critical mass towards systems designed for the open ordering of information, like the community-led Diaspora social network.
Alternatively, it would be heartening to see a vocal union on the part of the wider media producer community, aware of the threat to free information, demanding openness and shared control of the algorithms that judge which portion of reality we see; a union collectively withholding content before democratic demands are met.
Even having Facebook recognise the social control it has, and acknowledging that it is too much, would be a start.
These are all, lamentably, far-fetched hopes in the wild, global whirlwind of the media market. Yet, for the sake of pluralism and democracy, something has got to give. Maybe regulation, through no substantive framework I can yet envisage, will have to deal with this mammoth which, like a monopoly, has too much control over something socially too important. I float the possibility cognisant of the excruciating mechanics of any plausible regulation in this regard.
Unfortunately, given the capacity level of governments today to act firmly in the democratic interest, more likely than any of the aforementioned is that Google will out-manoeuvre the incumbent and come to preside over our social flutterings, along with email, search and the rest.