Fixing Facebook – the Common Carrier Option

       –  Jay Shepherd, July 13, 2014

Facebook is a problem.  However, it may be a solvable problem.

Note that I am not saying social media is a problem.  That may be true too, but that is a different problem.  Right now, my focus is on the problem of Facebook.

Recently, we’ve seen stories of researchers manipulating the Facebook feeds of random users, trying to determine how much they can influence the moods and thinking of those users.   Some users are in high dudgeon about this, and in Europe organizations are looking at whether the researchers broke any ethical rules.  Facebook has apologized.

Today the New York Times carried an article arguing that information about how Facebook can influence users is of public importance.  Instead of opposing this kind of study, says the writer, we should encourage it.  We should investigate Facebook’s power to influence elections, for example, or consumer behaviour in the marketplace.  We should all want to know more about the power of social media, and the power of this, the dominant social media company.

This is only one example of a long litany of complaints about Facebook and how it gets into our lives.  Many are concerned about the information on personal browsing patterns and site preferences that Facebook sells to advertisers.   Others are concerned with the control Facebook exerts over the ways you can communicate through their online community.  Some speculate that Facebook may already be limiting what you are able to access.  They have certainly been willing to provide private information to governments in at least some cases.

There is a theme here, and it is a disturbing one.  Social media are here to stay, and we are developing new methods of communication that require a platform like Facebook.   With ownership of the platform comes information and control, and with that information and control comes power.

Of course, Facebook is a competitive company, and so the logical solution is for competitors to arise that will offer a similar service, but without any of the perceived abuses.   It wasn’t so long ago that MySpace (remember MySpace?) was the social media platform of choice for those who used social media.  Even today, there are many competitors.  Perhaps we can just wait, and the competitive markets will fix the problem?

Sadly, that will not happen.  Instead of seeing a shift away from Facebook, we are seeing continued increases in its user base.  To the extent that the competitors are gaining ground, it is as second or third social media accounts.  Facebook has achieved market dominance, and is in the process of consolidating that dominance.

This is not surprising.  Social media is a method of communication with people you know.  When you select a social media platform, the one that makes the most sense is the one that the people you know are using.  As Facebook adds more users, it is increasingly where all the people you know communicate.  The only way that trend is likely to reverse is if another social media company displaces Facebook as the online community most people join.  That doesn’t change the problem.  The problem is just “relocated” to a new company with too much power:  Google, Yahoo, VKontakte, or someone we don’t even know yet.

This is not the first time society has faced this problem.  History is full of new technologies that become ubiquitous, and in the process give the technologies’ owners too much power over how people live.

A good example is the telephone.  With the introduction of real-time communication at a distance, the Bell companies had a lock on how people used this increasingly important technology.  There was some competition at first, but before long everyone realized that they had to be on the same common system.  That system was owned by Bell.

There are two problems with this kind of market domination, whether it is the domination by Bell then, or the domination by Facebook now.

First, a near-monopoly means control over prices and terms of service.  The solution to this is sometimes regulation imposed by the government, but the question of how much should be regulated is an important one.

Second, lack of market competition means there is little incentive to innovate.  Except for innovation driving profitability (e.g. new ways to get money from customers or, in the case of Facebook, advertisers), a company with market dominance does not have to offer a broader range of services, or seek new ways of keeping customers happy.  They already “own” the customers.

The solution of regulation solves the first problem but not the second.

In the case of the telephone (and many other services that were wholly or mainly natural monopolies), the real solution was to distinguish between the “common carrier” component of the service, and the remaining, naturally competitive component.

It made a lot of sense to have one common telephone system (wires, switches, operating protocols, standards, etc.) for use by everyone.  Like having one set of roads, and one set of electric wires, there is a social benefit in having everyone connected to the same common communication platform.

On the other hand, there was no reason why the common carrier had to have a monopoly over the sale of telephones, or even the provision of billing, operator, and other services.  You want a different style of phone?  Many companies should be able to provide the hardware, while adopting the common protocols for connecting to the platform.  All of the “people” side of the service – billing, operator assistance, arrangements with other countries’ systems, etc. – could be provided by different companies, all using the same common infrastructure, but offering services of different types, and at different prices.  This is really no different than many trucking companies competing to provide service over a common set of roads.

The solution, therefore, was to regulate the common carrier, but open up the rest of telephone communications to competition.

It worked.  The cost of telephone service went down, and the range of both goods and services relating to telephonic communications expanded exponentially.

It wasn’t perfect.  Some resisted, and some of both the new entrants and the incumbents played fast and loose with the principles of fair play.  Adjustments had to take place.  Sometimes the transition was less than nice.

But it worked.  Today telephone services, and related data and other communication services, are mostly unregulated although carried over a common infrastructure.  Customers have a much more extensive range of choices for how they use this common service, and on what terms.  Prices are lower.

Why can’t the same solution apply to Facebook?

The answer is, it can.  The trend that sees almost everyone migrating to Facebook is driven by the need to be on a common platform.  We want to be able to communicate with the people we know.  We don’t want to have to have one account (phone) for Susan, a different one for Jean, and still another one for Ali or Deepa.

The solution is, therefore, to standardize on the Facebook platform for social media.  The common servers, login and use protocols, technical standards, and similar “infrastructure” related aspects of Facebook can be treated as a regulated common carrier, available on standard, non-discriminatory terms to anyone who wants to offer social media services to the public.

The common carrier part of Facebook, despite being the basis of its dominance, is relatively narrow.  The balance of the service, on the other hand, allows for a lot more diversity, and innovation.

For example, at the simplest level there is no reason why different social media companies can’t offer a different look and feel of the site through their service.  Just as WordPress allows its users to present content in a myriad of ways, so too different social media companies could design an interface that serves their unique customer base, or can offer user-customizable interfaces.

The same is true of content.  Depending on your choice of service provider, you could see more or less of particular subjects, or particular types of content (videos, articles, messaging, etc.).  A service like GoodReads, for people who love books, could be offered on the Facebook platform, either as part of an overall social media offering, or as a specialized service.  If you are into gaming, a service provider will certainly provide a service targeted to your needs.

Service providers would also experiment with different terms.  Some people don’t want their personal information being provided to advertisers.  Would you be willing to pay $9.95 a month to have social media services without advertising or information collection?  One of the miracles of the competitive markets is that, if enough people want a service, someone will offer it.

The same freedom would solve the “research” problem.  Service providers can offer their service with or without access for research, or perhaps even various types of research.  The user chooses the service they want.

The common platform allows the user to choose who, of the people they know, they communicate with through social media, knowing that pretty well everyone will be on the same platform.  With a range of services, the user would be able to have a component of their social media experience restricted to close personal friends, while having another component – perhaps through a different service provider – that is available to business associates, or even to the whole world.

These are just a few examples of social media diversity arising out of a common social media platform.  One of the benefits would be that service providers would innovate, and new services – ones we can’t even guess at today – will emerge.

Now, some of this is already happening.  Non-Facebook social media communities are partnering with Facebook, allowing users to integrate their accounts with the Facebook platform (on terms stipulated by Facebook, of course).  They see the writing on the wall, so they are bowing to the dominance by Facebook.

This is a step in the right direction, but in the process it is actually making the problem worse.  Users get the use of a (somewhat) shared platform, but in the process they provide even more information and control to Facebook.  The centralization of power over social media is increased.

The common carrier proposal avoids that.  The Facebook platform becomes available to all service providers, on non-discriminatory and regulated terms.   Everyone pays the same to use the common platform, just as every telephone company pays the same to use the common communications infrastructure.  Facebook – the regulated common carrier company – would no longer be in the advertising business.  It would be in the business of providing a software and hardware platform for others on a fee for service basis.  It would not be permitted to collect or disseminate information.

There might still be a Facebook social media community, just as Bell continued to sell telephones after its monopoly ended.  That Facebook – the separate, unregulated advertising and information company – would compete with others to provide user experiences customers want.  (Do you buy your phones from Bell today?)

Some social media companies might not want to migrate to the Facebook platform, and if their user base is sufficiently narrow, they might succeed.  On the other hand, it is unlikely that service providers like Google, and Hi5/Tagged, and others with general social media products would maintain separate platforms.   They would be marginalized.

Along the way, some of the other problems people have with social media generally could be addressed.  Most of those problems are associated with aspects of the service above the infrastructure foundation.  Allowing a range of service providers to respond to the market on a common platform necessarily means that each of us can choose the social media experience we want.  We can protect our privacy more or less.   We can limit or expand the nature of our online communications.  Individually, we can draw the “acceptability” lines where we want to draw them, not where Facebook believes they should go.

As we move inexorably towards the lowest common denominator as determined by management of Facebook, a single company, it is time to assess whether an alternative must be found.   Standardizing on a common platform, and regulating the use of, and access to, that platform, would allow the competitive market to offer more diverse, innovative social media experiences.  The power to choose would shift to the users, which is where it should be.

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About Jay Shepherd

Jay Shepherd is a Toronto lawyer and writer. This site includes a series on energy issues, plus some random non-fiction on matters of interest. More important, it includes the Lives series, which bridge the gap between fiction and non-fiction, and now some short stories. Fiction is where I'm going, but not everything you want to say fits one form. I am not spending any time actively marketing what I write, but by all means feel free to share if you think others would enjoy reading this stuff.
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