Will breaking up Facebook solve its ills?

May 14, 2019 15:37
A breakup of Facebook will improve data security and proper use of such data. Photo: Bloomberg

Many believe that Facebook has evolved into one of those “too big to fail” entities with about 2.3 billion active monthly users.

It is a social network that is not only used by people to communicate with relatives, friends and business partners but has also become a major source of news and entertainment, and a way to earn money as well.

Will it be for the good of the global community to have this leviathan broken up? 

The question has arisen in the wake of the many ills that have resulted from its growth and dominance, including the spread of false information, its undue influence on public opinion, its vulnerability to exploitation by merchants of hate and ideology, and the loss of privacy.

Last week, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes wrote an article in the New York Times to advocate for its breakup. 

Hughes, who worked with Mark Zuckerberg in developing the website from their Harvard dorm, noted that the company's chairman and CEO now controls three of the world's major communications platforms – Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

Since Zuckerberg controls more than 60 percent of Facebook’s voting shares, the board of directors works more like an advisory committee than an overseer, Hughes said.

As a result, Zuckerberg alone can decide how to configure Facebook’s algorithms to determine what people see in their News Feeds, what privacy settings they can use and even which messages get delivered.

He sets the rules for how to distinguish violent and incendiary speech from the merely offensive, and is now in a position to acquire or copy any rival applications from competitors.

But from the perspective of individual users, they find it hard to conceive of their favorite communication tool as an ogre out to slaughter their freedom of choice.

First of all, they don't pay a single cent for the use of the communication tool.

Their personal information may have been compromised, but they reckon they really can't maintain total privacy in this era of digital information. They are also able to reject or ignore whatever information or advertisement is propagated on Facebook, or any website for that matter.

They realize that Facebook now controls three core communication platforms. But they really don't feel particularly threatened or vulnerable as a result of using a single log-in to use all three platforms.

Users are not required to be a member of Facebook before using WhatsApp or Instagram, and vice versa. In fact, some netizens use Twitter to access news information, some prefer Snapchat, others choose Telegram because they think its security features are better, while some, especially those in China, think that WeChat has everything they need for their communication purposes.

However, it is Facebook that is getting closer to integrating its user database into a single source of big data as the company is planning a cross-platform system that will allow users to integrate their three accounts and maintain a single identity.

Facebook is determined to strengthen the protection of its users' privacy following a series of scandals that has diminished their confidence in the platform.

WhatsApp, for example, is now encrypting all the messages that users send to each other. Encryption is one way to reassure users that their privacy is being protected.

But the move to a single messaging platform is raising more concerns from users than allaying their fears.

Facebook wants to launch a single messaging platform in order to facilitate the link between the general reader's profile into its peer-to-peer platforms.

But using encryption in the communication process could affect the platforms' revenue potential, especially now that Facebook wants to further monetize these tools through peer-to-peer advertisements.

In the first quarter of this year, Facebook achieved most of its revenue from advertising, which amounted to US$15 billion.

A unified platform linking Facebook’s user identities could generate much bigger data and eventually generate better advertisement business.

That's because all of the data in each app will result in better targeting for advertisements as it will lead to a better understanding of each user's interests and preferences.

In short, by coming up with a unified platform, Facebook will be able to better monitor and manage the entire system and harvest user data, rather than if it were to be done by different companies.

Users will enjoy greater convenience as they will be able to criss-cross through the various Facebook-owned platforms.

But the risk of user data falling into the wrong hands also becomes greater, especially considering Facebook's track record in handling user information.

A breakup of the corporate colossus currently under the control of one man will ensure the independent operation of each of Facebook’s communication tools and offer a practical solution to ensure data security and proper use of such data.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJ Insight writer