What can stop Facebook? Who can hold Facebook accountable? This has been the burning question throughout 2018 as one scandal after another has broken, exposing the company as a threat to democracy and a habitual abuser of its users’ trust.
Alarmingly, most of the usual pressures that can limit corporate malfeasance do not apply to Facebook.
The U.S. government seems unwilling to enforce a 2011 Federal Trade Commission consent decree that should have stopped Facebook from allowing private user data to end up with the likes of British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and hundreds of other companies.
Congress likes to hold hearings to look all tough, but no meaningful legislation has emerged from either house and none is likely to soon. The European Union has passed some strong user-protection regulations, but it’s too soon to see if they alter the behavior of big data companies beyond the continent.
Most of the damage Facebook has rendered on the world is expressive, so in the United States the First Amendment prevents any meaningful restrictions. In growing democracies like India and Brazil, elected leaders who front nationalist movements appreciate Facebook just as it is. Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro both rode Facebook-amplified fear and bigotry to victory in their elections.
The 2.3 billion Facebook users around the world have no political power, as they can’t be organized and don’t pay for Facebook anyway. A few thousand angry Americans deleting their accounts means nothing to Facebook as long as growth is strong in Brazil and India (already the country with the largest number of Facebook users). And even if you quit Facebook, it still has all your data, has given it away for years, and can still track you and collect more, even if you never log on again.
Advertisers love Facebook. Targeting on the platform is cheap and easy to use. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to the ad business and the worst thing that’s ever happened to other industries that have long depended on advertising, like magazines and newspapers. So advertisers won’t go on strike for anything.
Facebook has no meaningful competition for users or advertisers. Google is its strongest competitor for advertising. But there is enough advertising to satisfy both companies as they crush other outlets. If users flock to WhatsApp or Instagram, their data and all the ad money still end up with Facebook. Facebook, for some reason, was allowed to acquire both of them with almost no antitrust scrutiny. Neither Twitter nor Snapchat has enough users or strong enough ad revenue to compete with Facebook.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg need not answer to shareholders or even his board. An unusual and dumb stock arrangement grants the founder 60 percent of voting shares, ensuring he can’t be deposed or even forced to reform the company. The basic principles of corporate governance do not apply to Facebook.
Despite all of this weakness, calls to fix, dismantle, or crush Facebook get stronger every week.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released reports examining the extent to which Russian-linked actors hijacked Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram to deepen rifts in the American electorate. Then, on Tuesday, the New York Times published a long, investigative piece showing that Facebook had lied about stopping its notorious data-sharing practices that offered sensitive user information to companies that agreed to work with Facebook. This followed a week in which Facebook admitted a “bug” had allowed third-party apps to wrongly access the photos of up to 6.8 million users, including images that people began uploading to the site but didn’t post publicly.
The Times story not only capped off a terrible year of revelations and meltdowns for Facebook. It revealed the only party that has power to influence Zuckerberg and the rest of Facebook management: Facebook employees themselves.
Talented workers are at a premium in Silicon Valley. All the big technology companies bid for the sharpest talent and pay so handsomely that they have made the Bay Area unaffordable and almost unlivable for anyone who does not work full time for them.
And yet, Facebook workers were the sources of the interviews and documents that New York Times reporters used to construct the story of unwarranted and possibly illegal data sharing with the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, and the Russian search engine Yandex (which has close ties to the Kremlin). So clearly, their consciences are getting to some of them.
Over the past few years, Facebook has actively helped the likes of Modi, who runs a political party that has stoked hatred and tolerated mass violence against Muslims; Rodrigo Duterte, who ran for president of the Philippines promising to unleash deadly vigilante and police violence on citizens; and Donald Trump, who opened his campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and was recorded boasting of committing sexual assault.
I have been asking Facebook employees how they sleep at night knowing how much hatred and violence the company has fostered. Now it seems at least a few can’t sleep well after all and have decided to do something about it.
If Facebook employees organized to demand deep changes to Facebook’s practices, Zuckerberg would have to listen. If Facebook employees started to depart to work for less noxious companies—or even if they simply walked out, as Slate’s Will Oremus wrote recently—Zuckerberg would have to act. Labor is the only entity that has a chance of influencing or reining in Facebook. In every other way, Facebook leadership has no incentive to change. Labor activism could give it that incentive.
In recent months, we have seen Google employees stand up against company practices that indulged sexual harassers. And now thousands have taken a stand against plans for Google to build a search engine that would satisfy the government of China and its desires to censor and surveil. Amazon employees have protested that company’s plans to sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement. And Microsoft employees have demanded the company cease contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol because of abusive policies that agency has enforced. So far, we have seen no concerted activism among concerned Facebook employees. That could change soon.
Traditionally, labor activism serves the interests of labor, not nebulous concepts like decency, democracy, or humanity at large. But in this case, those are the same things. Believing they were working to make the world “more connected” and thus a better place to live was part of the wage Facebook paid its workers. Now that wage seems worthless.
If Facebook employees grow as disgusted with their employer’s prevarications and predations as the rest of us are, they will face difficulty recruiting new colleagues and perhaps even some shaming from those outside the company. That would make even a healthy Facebook paycheck feel a lot less comforting.
Help us, Facebook employees. You are our only hope.