Last fall, after more than a year-and-a-half of Congressional committee hearings and investigations into the power of technology companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, the government released a comprehensive report alleging anti-competitive conduct. The report, which called for a number of “structural remedies”—including that the companies be broken up—also gave momentum to an almost unprecedented number of state and federal antitrust actions. One of those was a lawsuit against Facebook brought by the Federal Trade Commission, backed by an investigation conducted alongside forty-nine states; the suit alleged a wide range of monopolistic behavior. When the case was filed, last December, Facebook responded with a blog post calling the lawsuit “revisionist history” and arguing that it “ignores reality.” On Wednesday, Facebook released a much more comprehensive response: a legal defense and request to dismiss.
“No government lawsuit similar to this one has been brought in the 130-year history of the Sherman Act, and for good reason,” Facebook’s statement begins. The FTC “has not alleged facts amounting to a plausible antitrust case” and “ignores its own prior decisions, controlling precedent, and the limits of its statutory authority.” In order to make a plausible case for antitrust action, Facebook argues, the FTC would have to prove a) that Facebook dominates a defined market, b) that it has the power in that market to raise prices or restrict output, and c) that it has maintained that monopoly power in ways that harm competition and-or injure consumers. The government’s complaint fails, per Facebook, “because the FTC has not pleaded facts sufficient to satisfy any of the three required elements of a claim.”
The FTC, for its part, has no trouble defining the market that Facebook dominates: it’s “personal social networking,” or the sharing of photos and other personal information with family and friends. As some technology journalists have pointed out—including Casey Newton, the author of a Substack called Platformer—FTC’s definition seems shaky, though: for one thing, the FTC’s claim ignores the existence of popular apps like TikTok, which has managed to build a massive amount of market share—eight hundred million users or so by the end of last year. Such success would be impossible according to the FTC’s definition, if Facebook really has managed to squeeze out competitors.
Facebook’s defense also goes after another problematic aspect of the FTC’s claim: the fact that antitrust activity (as it has been defined by the courts for the past several decades) consists of causing harm by restricting choice and-or raising prices. The second of these is difficult to prove on a consumer level because, as Facebook has taken pains to point out, its services are free. That leaves the FTC to argue that price-raising takes place on the advertising side, or that Facebook causes consumers harm in equivalently bad ways—by, say, invading their privacy and sharing their data with advertisers. That argument was advanced in 2019 by Dina Srinivasan, a legal scholar at Yale, in a paper called “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook.” So far, however, it has not been tested in federal court.
The FTC’s case is further complicated by the fact that a substantial amount of its claim rests on the idea that the acquisitions of both Instagram and WhatsApp were anti-competitive in nature, designed to maintain and expand Facebook’s monopoly on social networking. But as Facebook points out in its motion to dismiss, the FTC approved both acquisitions—and expressed no problem with them from a competitive point of view. Although antitrust experts such as Tim Wu—a Columbia Law professor and former advisor to the FTC who was recently named to Joe Biden’s economic advisory council—have said that approving deals does not in any way restrict the FTC from questioning them later, doing so means arguing that the FTC either screwed up the first time around or, perhaps, in Facebook’s terms, is trying to revise history. That doesn’t mean Facebook shouldn’t be scrutinized and kept in check—it certainly has plenty of bad behavior to answer for—but the FTC will likely need to keep searching for another way.
Here’s more on Facebook:
- Destructive: Dipayan Ghosh is a former Facebook staffer and a former policy advisor to the Obama White House who now runs the Digital Platforms and Democracy Project at Harvard and is the author of a recent book called Terms of Disservice: How Silicon Valley is Destructive by Design. “I believe that Facebook, Google, and Amazon should be seen as out-and-out monopolists that have harmed the American economy in various ways, and have the potential to do much greater harm should their implicit power go uncurbed,” he writes. CJR spoke with Ghosh and a number of other tech experts in a series of interviews using our Galley discussion platform.
- Insatiable: Karen Hao writes for MIT’s Technology Review about how Facebook’s artificial intelligence algorithms “gave it an insatiable habit for lies and hate speech,” and how the man who helped build them—Joaquin Quiñonero Candela, a former director of the AI group at Facebook—can’t fix the problem because the company essentially won’t let him. “Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth,” she writes. “Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth.”
- Slam dunk: Wu thinks the FTC has a “straightforward and easy case.” In an op-ed published in the New York Times shortly after the FTC filed its claim, he argued that Facebook is clearly guilty of “buying its way out of competition” in the same way that John D. Rockefeller did at Standard Oil. Facebook “joins a tradition of such cases, including the antitrust suits against Standard Oil, American Tobacco, Alcoa, IBM, AT&T and Microsoft,” Wu wrote. “None of those cases damaged the American economy. On the contrary, the lawsuits were aimed at monopolies that had squashed competition, and they resulted in revitalized, reorganized and ultimately more innovative industries.”
Other notable stories:
- The New York Times writes about the fallout from Reply All’s podcast on racism at Bon Appetit. “The Test Kitchen,” as it was called, wound up triggering similar accusations aimed at Gimlet Media, the parent company of Reply All, and led to the demise of the series. Gimlet is now owned by Spotify, an acquisition that complicated the union drive at Gimlet, the Times reports, and exacerbated the toxic culture of the office. (Alex Blumberg, the cofounder of Gimlet, made twenty million dollars from the acquisition.) But the story’s not over yet: according to The Hollywood Reporter, HBO is making it all into a show.
- The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project says it is deeply concerned by a state-affiliated media campaign aimed at tying one of its editors to a Serbian crime syndicate. According to the OCCRP, as the organization is known, Serbian pro-government outlets have been trying to connect Stevan Dojčinović—a regional editor with OCCRP and the editor-in-chief of Krik, a Serbian news outlet focusing on crime and corruption—to a murderous Montenegro-based gang called Kavač. “By accusing our colleagues of being part of the Kavač gang’s criminal activities, these pro-state tabloids are providing criminal groups with justification for murder,” Drew Sullivan, OCCRP’s publisher, said.
- Brandi Collins-Dexter and Joan Donovan, researchers at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center who focus on disinformation and digital propaganda, write for CJR about how malicious actors including the Proud Boys and other right-wing or white supremacist groups have used digital techniques such as “keyword squatting” to promote the year 1776 as an attack on the Times’ 1619 project. On January 6, when insurrectionists stormed the Capitol, 1776 became a rallying cry. (Keyword squatting is defined as the practice of producing online content “around a specific search-engine-optimized term so as to dominate the search results of that term.”)
- The Daily Beast writes about the collapse of a new-media venture backed by Tim Pool, the host of Timcast IRL on YouTube. Pool, a former liberal who became a Donald Trump supporter, now lives in a million-dollar mansion in the Maryland woods, the Beast reports. In 2019, along with two business partners, he launched Subverse, a news site and YouTube channel. After not too long, their plans devolved into interpersonal attacks. “He was trying to use my cat as leverage,” Emily Molli, one of Pool’s associates, said (the cat was eventually returned to Molli, with the help of an animal shelter and a Maryland sheriff’s lieutenant.)
- Facebook’s recommendation algorithm shows different news, groups, and hashtags to different users. But who sees what? A new feature from The Markup called “Split Screen” tries to answer that question by offering people a look at what Biden voters and Trump voters are shown in their news feeds. “Split Screen” is based on the Facebook data of real people obtained on a volunteer-basis through the Citizen Browser project, started by The Markup early this year.
- BuzzFeed is considering going public through a merger with a company called 890 Fifth Avenue Partners, Bloomberg reports. The terms of the deal aren’t publicly known; talks are ongoing and can still fall apart. Last month, BuzzFeed officially acquired HuffPost; this week, the newly-combined company laid off more than 60 staffers and shut down HuffPost’s news operations in the UK and Canada.
- YouTube says it has taken down more than thirty thousand videos that made misleading or false claims about COVID-19 vaccines over the past six months; according to Axios, that announcement represents the first public release of numbers related to coronavirus misinformation. Since last February, YouTube has taken down more than eight hundred thousand such videos—first flagged by either the company’s AI systems or by human reviewers, then subject to another level of review. So far, YouTube hasn’t said anything about how many people saw the videos before they were removed.
- NPR has published a new video project called “The Early Days Of The Pandemic As Seen Through Your Camera Roll,” which revisits this time last year, when Americans “realized the pandemic was getting serious.” NPR put out a call for memories and images, and received nearly two thousand responses. “What emerged,” NPR said, “is a moving depiction of our collective grief and resilience.”