Since our last update to the Facebook Timeline of Scandal and Strife, Facebook’s penchant for sowing chaos and harm wherever it goes has only gotten worse. The good news is, as the Howard Beale character famously said in Network, an increasing number of us are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.
Of course, Beale was stark raving mad, but that’s how it feels sometimes to look over the overwhelming volume of ugliness and insensitivity and greed laid out across this timeline. The good news (if you can call it that) is that more sensible heads are also scrutinizing Facebook’s dismal record. Governing bodies and antitrust enforcers around the world are starting to pay very close attention to their very poor behavior. Our question is, can their efforts spark real and lasting change?
If we had the answer, we could probably stop publishing this timeline – but we don’t. So, we’ll leave it as food for thought as you check out the latest updates below. Be sure to read on for the full timeline when you’re done…
December 8, 2020
Today, Britain’s antitrust watchdog, the Competition and Markets Authority, proposes fines of up to 10% of Big Tech earnings should companies like Facebook fall afoul of new UK competition rules. For those keeping score, that would amount to around $7.1 billion annually for the social media giant. “We believe this level of penalty is sufficient to lead to deterrence,” the CMA reports. We will believe it when we see it.
December 15, 2020
Today, the EU’s European Commission proposes “an ambitious reform of the digital space” designed to “better protect consumers and their fundamental rights online” and “lead to fairer and more open digital markets for everyone.” The proposal manifests in two separate acts: Under the Digital Markets Act, companies like Facebook who fail to comply with the new competition rules could face fines of up to 10% of total annual earnings or be forced to sell off portions of their businesses. Under the Digital Services Act, they can face fines of up to 6% of their global revenues for failing to remove harmful and illegal content. Unfortunately, the proposed rules could take years to go into effect – but hey, as the ancient proverb says, even “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.
December 16, 2020
How can you tell when people don’t like you? Here is one possible indicator: You donate $75 million to the new wing of a hospital – only to have the city’s Board of Supervisors formally condemn the hospital’s plan to put your name on the place. That actually happens to Mark Zuckerberg today, when San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors overwhelmingly approves a resolution condemning the naming of the city’s public hospital for the Facebook co-founder and his wife, Priscilla Chan. The board doesn’t really have the power to tell the hospital what to do, but Supervisor Gordon Mar told AP News that the resolution sends the message that a public hospital catering to the poor “should not bear the name of someone whose social media platform endangers public health, spreads misinformation and violates privacy.” Say it with us now: Ouch.
December 16, 2020
Today, a group of state attorneys general led by Texas files a new antitrust suit targeting Google’s advertising technology services. Their brief, reports CNBC, “claims Google unlawfully acquired, attempted to acquire, or maintained a monopoly in several steps of the online ad market including both buy and sell sides.” But the filing’s real headline-grabber is its allegation that Google teamed up with Facebook to harm competition “through an unlawful agreement to rig auctions and fix prices.” What’s next – a merger between Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom?
January 6, 2021
Today, Facebook, a global behemoth worth hundreds of millions of dollars whose founder once told the Senate that “everyone in the world deserves good privacy protection,” gives the two billion users of its messenger service WhatsApp an ultimatum: agree to share your personal data, or delete your account. This data includes user phone numbers, phone numbers of other people stored in user address books, and profile names and pictures.
When questioned by an Ars Technica reporter, a Facebook spokesperson “declined to speak on the record about the changes and precisely how or if it’s possible for users to opt out of them.” Not a good sign when a social media platform with a horrendous privacy record refuses to talk about privacy changes affecting billions of people.
January 26, 2021
The Cambridge Analytica blow-up feels like it was decades ago now (it was only 2016), so you could be forgiven for forgetting that, at one point, Facebook agreed to a so-called “app audit” of other apps on its platform with access to large amounts of user data. At the time, the agreement was great crisis-management PR for Facebook, but it turns out it was little more than smoke and mirrors – as evidenced by today’s admission from the UK’s Information Commissioner that her office is unable to discuss details of its investigation into the case, including whether or not Facebook actually completed the app audit.
Why? “It’s part of an agreement that we struck with Facebook,” she told a parliamentary subcommittee – a secret agreement that apparently closes the door on sharing details regarding Facebook’s accountability for one of the biggest scandals in the history of social media. Takeaway: If you are a giant corporation under investigation, play for time, then strong-arm your way into a deal with the investigator.
February 4, 2021 – The West Virginia Newspaper Taking on Facebook
Today, we add another notch to Facebook’s antitrust lawsuit belt, but with a new twist. The suit filed by one Doug Reynolds, owner of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, is “the first of its kind filed by a news outlet,” reports the Wall Street Journal. Reynolds claims that Facebook – along with Google, also named in the filing – manipulates the digital advertising market and makes it harder for newspapers to survive. He calls the Big Tech giants “more powerful than Standard Oil in its heyday,” which is why “no one wants to be the first to take them on.” Now, his company, HD Media, has made a crack in the dam, and he expects more news publishers to follow.
February 17, 2021
The company whose founder once said his primary focus was “voice and inclusion” today officially blocks people in Australia from posting links to news stories on Facebook. The reasoning? The Australian government had the gall to demand that Facebook pay news publishers when their content shows up on its platform. Given how much Facebook profits from selling advertising around this content that it neither makes nor owns, a requirement like this seems way overdue.
Facebook disagrees, prompting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to call its actions “as arrogant as they were disappointing… only [confirming] the concerns that an increasing number of countries are expressing about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”
February 24, 2021
Facebook is a strident upholder of free speech whenever and wherever it benefits… Facebook. See: Today’s ProPublica news that as Turkey was carrying out a military offensive against Kurdish minorities in 2018, Facebook acceded to the Turkish government’s order to block posts from People’s Protection Units (aka YPG), a mostly Kurdish militia group. At the time, Facebook faced a tough choice – ignore the government’s order and risk being shut off from tens of millions of users in Turkey, or bend to the wishes of a government with a casual disregard for democracy and the rule of law? Rake in more sweet, sweet ad cash, or give a high-five to authoritarianism?
C’mon, this is Facebook we’re talking about here – you already know what choice they made: “I am fine with this,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s No.2 executive, in an internal email. And with a couple of keyboard strokes, Facebook barred Turkish residents from seeing YPG’s photos and updates about the Turkish military’s brutal attacks on the Kurdish minority in Syria.
March 5, 2021
New administration, new focus on breaking up Big Tech? That certainly seemed to be the message Joe Biden gives today when he names Tim Wu to the National Economic Council as Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy. The Columbia University law professor has a long track record as one of Big Tech’s most outspoken critics. In his book, The Curse of Bigness, he wrote that the great power of tech platforms like Facebook and Google “yields gross inequality and material suffering, feeding the appetite for nationalistic and extremist leadership.” And he once teamed with Facebook co-founder turned anti-Facebook zealot Chris Hughes to argue for the company’s break-up during federal and state antitrust investigations. “This is the shot in the arm that competition policy needs,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar of the appointment. Let’s hope she’s right.
March 15, 2021
“If we can find it, [Facebook and Instagram] can find it,” Digital Citizens Alliance (DCA) executive director Tom Galvin tells the Washington Post today, following a DCA report that details how those two companies (plus YouTube) promote drug sales. “That begs the question how hard they’re looking.” Some of these accounts peddling steroids, opioids, and other drugs reach “thousands of followers or viewers,” according to The Post. With tens of thousands of Americans dying each year from the opioid epidemic, you have to wonder what it takes to make these platforms take a much harder look.
March 22, 2021
On the heels of naming Tim Wu to his Economic Council, President Biden appoints Lina Kahn for a seat on the Federal Trade Commission today. A peer of Wu’s at Columbia University, Kahn is what publications like The Vergecall a “tech antitrust pioneer” and her appointments send a clear signal that the Biden administration “is preparing to take on some of the tech industry’s most powerful and influential companies.” With a prominent position on the FTC, Kahn will be in a position to influence policies, rulemakings, and enforcement actions at an agency with authority to administer antitrust and consumer-protection laws.
March 23, 2021
Today’s latest addition to the endless Facebook lawsuit pile could lead to results. Why? It’s being filed in France, where the country’s consumer law, according to CNN, “is especially well suited to the issue.” The suit, filed by Reporters Without Borders, argues that Facebook has engaged in “deceptive commercial practices” by allowing disinformation and other threats to propagate even as they promise users a safe, secure, and error-free environment. “Misleading consumers is illegal under French law,” CNN continues, “and companies face fines of up to 10% of their annual sales if found in violation.” To which we can only say, Vive la France!
March 23, 2021
Turns out advertisers don’t like it when the ads they are buying are not delivered to actual people. And seeing as how Facebook recently fessed up to closing 1.3 billion fake accounts, that could mean a lot of wasted ad spending and a lot of angry advertisers.
Facebook loves to tout such numbers in order to brag about how secure its platform is, but the figures are useless without context. According to The Mercury News, Facebook failed to include “how many fake accounts were not caught at the time of creation, how many were served ads, and to what extent fake accounts may be included in the company’s user numbers, such as the 2.8 billion ‘monthly active users’ it claimed for 2020.” Of course, providing such data would be an act of transparency, which probably means Facebook won’t do it.
March 24, 2021
Today, we get our annual reminder, courtesy of Public Citizen, that Big Tech companies like Facebook have become this generation’s tobacco industry – when it comes to using their immense wealth and clout to pull levers on Capitol Hill. “Increased investments in Washington have allowed these monopolists to harm consumers, workers, and other businesses alike,” the publication writes, “with relatively little accountability to date.” One among many eye-opening statistics from the report: “Big Tech has eclipsed yesterday’s big lobbying spenders, Big Oil and Big Tobacco. In 2020, Amazon and Facebook spent nearly twice as much as Exxon and Philip Morris on lobbying.” This is not how democracy is supposed to work, folks.
April 3, 2021
It’s been a few months since we were last stunned by a Facebook data breach. Today, Business Insider reports on the online leak of more than 533 million Facebook user phone numbers and other personal data to a hacking forum. “This means that if you have a Facebook account, it is extremely likely the phone number used for the account was leaked,” writes forum member Alon Gal, who first discovered the leak way back in January when a fellow hacker was offering the stolen data for a price. Now, it’s all on there for free, exposing a massive number of Facebook users to phishing schemes, fraud, and other crimes. For its part, Facebook describes the leak as spillover from “a vulnerability that the company patched in 2019,” which apparently makes it okay to not even bother notifying its users of the problem.
April 8, 2021
Today, a civil rights organization that has been monitoring anti-Muslim bigotry on Facebook for more than eight years – while the company has taken no meaningful action – finally does something about it. The group, Muslim Advocates, files a lawsuit against Facebook for misleading people “into believing that Facebook is doing more than it actually is to combat anti-Muslim bigotry on the world’s largest social network,” reports NPR. The suit points to evidence such as a 2019 incident involving a militia group, the Texas Patriot Network, who used the platform to plan an armed protest at a Muslim convention in Houston. It took Facebook 24 hours to take the event down. Meanwhile, Texas Patriot Network is still active on the social network.
April 12, 2021
Today, The Guardian publishes a blockbuster account of one former Facebook insider’s quixotic quest to stop “multiple blatant attempts by foreign national governments to abuse our platform on vast scales to mislead their own citizenry.” That’s how Sophie Zhang, then a data scientist for Facebook, described the situation in her final message on the company’s internal forum. Then, well aware of Facebook’s penchant for squelching dissent from the ranks, Zhang launched a password-protected website hosting a copy of the memo and sent the login information to her fellow employees.
Facebook proceeded to delete the internal post, then reached out to Zhang’s hosting service domain registrar and forced her site offline. Zhang has since been fired, “a result of her spending too much time focused on uprooting civic fake engagement and not enough time on the priorities outlined by management,” reports The Guardian. “Priorities” like, you know, propping up authoritarian rulers and undermining democracy for the sake of financial gain.
April 16, 2021
Facebook has tried desperately to downplay the recent data breach affecting more than 530 million of its users, even refusing to notify those users of the problem because they can’t bear to admit any responsibility. Thankfully, this effort seems to be failing. Today, a group called Digital Rights Ireland (DRI) commences a “mass action” against Facebook on behalf of the affected users.
Claiming that Facebook was legally obligated to protect the data under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the suit follows an investigation opened into the incident by Ireland’s national data watchdog earlier in the week. (Facebook’s European headquarters happen to be in Ireland.) “Compensation is not the only thing that makes this mass action worth joining,” states DRI. “It is important to send a message to large data controllers that they must comply with the law and that there is a cost to them if they do not.” So, join already.
April 16, 2021
Facebook claims it doesn’t allow smugglers to use the platform to offer migrants illegal passage across the United States border. But “In some cases,” states today’s Tech Transparency Project report detailing the problem, “Facebook’s algorithm is actually recommending smuggler pages to users.”
These promoted posts (read: ads being purchased by human smugglers) “feed false hope” to migrants “that they will have an easy time crossing the border” and gives them false information about the Biden administration’s immigration policies and their actual ability to enter the U.S. “TTP’s research found a total of 50 Facebook pages offering illegal border crossings,” the report continues. “Facebook continues to leave major holes in its enforcement, providing ample opportunity for human smugglers [ed: not to mention just about every other kind of criminal actor] to exploit the platform’s tools.”
April 20, 2021
It turns out that West Virginia news publisher Doug Reynolds’ lawsuit against Facebook back in February was the catalyst he had hoped for. Today, 125 newspapers in 11 states announce lawsuits against both Facebook and Google for having “unlawfully monopolized the digital advertising market and engaged in an illegal secretive deal, nicknamed ‘Jedi Blue,’ to thwart competition.” Newspaper advertising revenue plunged from $49 billion in 2006 to $16.5 billion 2017, despite surging growth in traffic to online news outlets. “The freedom of the press is not at stake,” the complaints state. “The press itself is at stake.”
May 10, 2021
How eager is Facebook to hone future generations of social media addicts? So eager, that today, it committed to “not showing ads in any Instagram experience we develop for people under the age of 13.” It knows that getting those young, malleable brains hooked on its digital crack will pay off in spades down the line. Unfortunately (for Facebook), regulators are having none of it. Today, 44 attorneys general joined both child safety groups and Congress in urging Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to “scrap plans for an Instagram intended for younger users,” reports CNN. The gist of their complaint is simply what we already knew – that “Facebook has historically failed to protect the welfare of children on its platforms”.
May 13, 2021
The pandemic has made Big Tech a whole lot richer and a whole lot more powerful – but it has also made Americans a whole lot more skeptical of Big Tech. Today, an Axios/Harris brand reputation poll of the top 100 tech companies shows a notable “pandemic plunge” in the eyes of our increasingly connected populace, “suggesting that people see their products as necessary evils,” writes Axios. Speaking of evil, Google took the biggest hit, falling from the top 25 in terms of reputability all the way down to No.60 in the span of one year. The good news for Facebook? It only fell a spot or two – but then again, it was already near the bottom of the list anyway.
May 21, 2021
Today, with the reintroduction of a Bill called the Social Media Privacy Protection and Consumer Rights Act, Senator Amy Klobuchar and a trio of bipartisan colleagues take aim at Big Tech’s soft spot – its pocketbook. If it were to become law, the legislation would force websites such as Facebook to grant users greater control over their data and allow them to opt out of data tracking and collection. Its massive data collection is what gives Facebook the power to pitch advertisers and rake in tens of billions of dollars from them every year. But people who use the platform, said co-sponsor Senator John Kennedy in a statement, “have a right to data privacy, and that right does not evaporate when someone logs on to their social media profile.”
The Bill also feels like a response to Facebook’s recent refusal to notify 533 million users that their data was leaked to a hacker forum. It would require notification within 72 hours of such a breach, including reminding users of their ability to opt out or close their account, and to request that their data be deleted. The user would also be provided with a full copy of the data that has been collected, including a list of the other parties with whom it has been shared. Serious question – why on earth would any Member of Congress vote against this?
As we learned on May 13, Facebook has now reached rock bottom in terms of being trusted and loved by its users. Could it be the case that they can only go up from here?
Look at the years-long staggering volume of Facebook’s wrongdoings, of the countless harms it has inflicted, and the pathological inability to address these harms in any meaningful way.
This is not a company designed for truth and accountability. It is designed for malignant growth at any cost, and it has become a burden in our lives that from which we cannot separate ourselves.
Just as we are inextricably bound to Facebook, so is Facebook inextricably bound to its toxic business model. The option to stop profiting from disinformation, hate, and all the other bile that rises to the top of its engagement metrics left port a long time ago. That ship has sailed. Facebook is too valuable to too many people to change from within. It must now be changed from without.
We the people, and our elected leaders, need to change Facebook. Sen. Klobuchar’s Social Media Privacy Protection and Consumer Rights Act is a step in the right direction. Our elected officials are as fed up as we are and the window to structurally changing Big Tech for the better has never been so wide open.
We encourage you to reach out to our leaders in Congress and let them know that reining in Facebook and holding it accountable must be a priority going forward. Let’s keep the pressure on.
Facebook cannot – or will not – put out the fires it has started. It’s up to us to stop the arson.