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Facebook and the Corporate Ransacking of America

The Facebook scandal is yet another example of the capitalism-led erosion of America's institutions.

Jason Koebler

Jason Koebler

Image: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

For now, there is not much to do besides shout from the rooftops.

We've been publishing so many stories about Facebook lately that some readers have told us they're tired of hearing about it. But it’s important that we not let this moment die. Facebook’s reckoning is not really a story about Facebook, but one about the fundamental collapse of America’s institutions. A company does not become this powerful in a vacuum.

The New Yorker published an article Tuesday called “The Infuriating Innocence of Mark Zuckerberg.” The article posits that “we blame Zuckerberg because we can’t stand to blame ourselves. The truth is that we made a deal with Facebook; we gave up our information for free. Unable to bear our own responsibility for the world we have chosen, we have turned the technologists into monsters we can blame.” The article is thoughtful, but its premise is fundamentally flawed.

Put simply: It is not your fault. The deck has been stacked against us at every turn, and the guardrails that were supposed to protect us have not.

Congress has spent the last decade systematically squashing privacy as a core American value. Privacy protections have gotten worse, not better: CISA, the CLOUD Act, and FISA reauthorization have allowed the federal government to suck up data from platforms like Facebook. Last year, Congress voted to allow ISPs to sell consumer information to the highest bidder.

A revolving door between big corporations, lobbying firms, Congress, and regulatory agencies have allowed big companies to dismantle regulations from within. Ajit Pai, the current head of the FCC, is a former Verizon lobbyist; Scott Pruitt, the man running the EPA, spent most of his career suing the EPA and rented his DC apartment from a lobbyist; the Treasury Secretary is an investment banker.

The Citizens United decision has allowed corporations to funnel money to super PACs that can use unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. Corporations in all industries have been given near limitless authority to purchase, merge, and consolidate with their competitors (look at what Sinclair Broadcasting has done to local TV media; or Facebook’s ownership of Instagram and WhatsApp for recent examples.)

Tuesday, Zuckerberg was weakly questioned by a bunch of politicians who have received donations from Facebook. Wednesday, he'll be questioned by others Facebook has donated to. Advocacy groups, super PACs, and slow-moving national political parties have helped entrench an aging class of politicians who know next to nothing about technology and prefer the status quo. Zuckerberg spent much of Tuesday saying “I don’t understand the question” because many Senators didn't know enough about how Facebook works to ask the right ones.

Whether this dog-and-pony show was inept because lawmakers are beholden to corporate interests or are digitally illiterate is beside the point: Either way, it is time for our politicians to act, as Zeynep Tufekci wrote in the New York Times. They must protect the American people and be held accountable by their constituents.

Our total system failure enabled Facebook, which in turn enabled Cambridge Analytica, but it has also enabled Google, Apple, Amazon, and Uber, which have all been working on their own forms of regulatory and legislative capture at the local, state, and national levels. Google has spent record sums on lobbying. Apple is lobbying against pro-consumer right to repair legislation at a state level and often hides behind trade groups to do its lobbying work. Amazon has risen to prominence with government subsidies and is currently holding a local government handout sweepstakes to choose the location of its next headquarters. Uber ignores local regulations, then gets laws rewritten when it is sanctioned.

The same systemic failures have allowed Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T to steal net neutrality from us, corner ISP markets around the country, and entrench their monopolies with lobbyist-written legislation passed by the lawmakers they donate to. The system that allowed Shell, BP, and Exxon to destroy our planet also allowed Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, and other financial institution to wreck the global economy. It's allowed gun manufacturers and the National Rifle Association to kill any meaningful gun control reform.

Facebook and thousands of other corporations are beholden largely to their shareholders and their bottom lines; it’s easy to play by the rules when there are no rules, or they aren’t enforced, or you’ve written the rules yourself.

And Facebook, like many big companies, has made its money by fundamentally relying on an information asymmetry advantage. Corporations and their armies of lawyers know more about their products, the law, regulations, the political process, and their business models than any one person could ever hope to.

As Zuckerberg alluded to Tuesday, Facebook—and a host of other companies in Silicon Valley—is highly motivated to make sure you know as little as possible about how its business works. Why read a privacy policy when there are thousands of other privacy policies to read? Why bother deleting Facebook when it has already bought its only meaningful competitors?

Undoing the damage that late-stage capitalism and corporate America has wrought on us is perhaps the most important challenge this generation will face

It is unreasonable to expect the average person to have somehow predicted Facebook’s business model a decade ago, before Facebook even had a business model. It is unreasonable to expect the average person to understand the myriad ways they are tracked on and off the site. It is unreasonable to expect people who are not technologists or lawyers to understand how a product engineered by thousands of technologists and lawyers would one day screw them over. So no, it is not your fault that Facebook abused the trust you put in it.

Protecting us from this information asymmetry is the role of journalists, politicians, regulators, and academic researchers, not the average citizen. Facebook had contributed to the erosion of these institutions. Facebook can tweak its algorithm to give or take an audience from news publications and with Google has captured 84 percent of the total online advertising market. It has contributed to a media environment in which many people distrust the media, and has siloed us into filter bubbles that polarize political views. Lawmakers don’t understand how Facebook works, and some regulators help Silicon Valley game the system from the inside. Researchers barely know where to start when it comes to scientifically assessing black-box social media algorithms, disinformation campaigns, trolls, social groups, and the human psyche all interact to affect human behavior and society.

What has happened, then, is a group of greedy companies—armed with gobs of cash, technologists, lawyers, lobbyists, and an edict to “break things”—have ransacked America, torn down any semblance of regulatory structure, experimented on our psyches, and undermined the institutions that are supposed to protect us.

Undoing the damage that late-stage capitalism and corporate America has wrought on us is perhaps the most important challenge this generation will face. If we’re going to talk about fixing Facebook, let’s start there.