Summary

Commentary: Imagine a world with more than one Facebook. Here’s why you can’t

Dec 19, 2020 | 🚀 Fathership

The antitrust cases brought against Facebook raise disturbing examples of how it diminished options for users, says NTU’s Mark Cenite

SINGAPORE: Last Monday (Dec 14) evening, Google services suffered a global outage.

The search engine and YouTube were down, highlighting our reliance on one firm for so many uses.

Concern over the risks and implications of a lack of competition among tech giants has, in recent weeks, led US authorities to file antitrust actions against Google and Facebook.

The complaints in the cases against Facebook invited us to consider that its hard-nosed founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, achieved his ambition to connect the world by acquiring other services that could have rivalled it not only on bells and whistles but on critical dimensions like privacy.

Among possible remedies, the suits brought by the United States’ Federal Trade Commission and 48 attorneys-general include forcing Facebook to sell Instagram and WhatsApp.

Antitrust law aims to preserve competition in the market so consumers benefit. Monopolies can carry on if they achieve their supremacy on the merits, by, for example out-innovating their rivals.

But firms are prohibited from anticompetitive acts — that is, abusing their power to enhance their dominance, such as by acquiring a rival to reduce competition and create a monopoly.

DREAMS OF A BETTER WORLD

The plaintiffs asked us to imagine a parallel universe in which Facebook hadn’t acquired Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. If the firms were instead competing with one another, how might the platforms have evolved?

Rather than just sharing photos and videos on Instagram, perhaps we could share news stories, play games and organise groups there.

Instead of merely allowing us to send messages, photos, and links to another user — or to many — WhatsApp may have introduced a newsfeed like Facebook’s.

The plaintiffs also asked us to consider an appealing scenario. Maybe the platforms would have competed on the volume of advertising. A network might interrupt our user experience with fewer ads, or even offer a subscription plan with no ads.

Maybe the networks would differentiate themselves on how little they surveil us.

Facebook tracks our activity on its platforms and all over the web, collecting data about our every click and view. It offers advertisers the ability to target us precisely with its ads.

Some people find that creepy or annoying. Imagine if just one of the hypothetical social networks gave users greater control over how information is shared, even letting us opt out of micro-targeting.

It may have happened: WhatsApp’s founders made privacy a priority.

Before acquiring WhatsApp, Facebook told WhatsApp users, its founders, and US and European regulators it wouldn’t link data across its services.

But in 2016, it linked WhatsApp users’ phone numbers with their Facebook Blue accounts and used WhatsApp data for friend recommendations, at least in America.

Imagine how social networking controversies might have unfolded differently over the last few years if there had been more competition.

When the Cambridge Analytica scandal was revealed in 2018, we learnt that millions of Facebook users' data was leaked for targeted political advertising. If an alternative social network was thriving then, might you have been more likely to delete your Facebook account?

Recently, many Americans on the left became frustrated with Facebook’s refusal to take down disinformation and offensive speech, including President Donald Trump’s posts on the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests. An alternative social network with stricter controls may have inspired an exodus from Facebook.

Similarly, Americans on the right objected because Facebook put warning labels on some posts of President Trump and other conservatives. They may have abandoned Facebook had there been a viable alternative, just as conservatives are leaving Twitter for its newer rival Parler.

ZUCKERBERG’S TRAGIC FLAW

In literature, the hero of a tragedy is said to have a “tragic flaw”, an otherwise admirable quality that, in excess, leads to his downfall.

If Zuckerberg has such a flaw, it’s his competitive nature — which led, in the language of antitrust law, to anticompetitive behaviour.

Zuckerberg’s candid email with colleagues, acquired during the antitrust investigations, shows his relentless attempts to keep winning.

Zuckerberg acknowledged in email that acquiring Instagram was to “neutralise a competitor”. He said

One thing about start-ups … is you can often acquire them” — and even when their founders were not inclined to sell, for a “high enough price … they’d have to consider it.

The Zuckerberg that we see in his email is a smart businessman and not an entirely unsympathetic figure.

The entrepreneur who built the first social network to connect billions sees potential existential threats everywhere.

He saw that Facebook, developed for desktop computers, was being outmanoeuvred by mobile apps. Instagram was growing explosively by allowing photo-sharing with cool filters. WhatsApp was growing in messaging.

By acquiring Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook stopped them from developing into full-featured social networks. Facebook has done little even to monetise WhatsApp. But owning both platforms prevents them from threatening Blue’s monopoly.

There were dozens of other acquisitions.

The Malaysian start-up Octazen was licensing technology that imported contacts from one’s address book into Facebook and Twitter. In 2010, Facebook bought it and immediately cut off Twitter’s access to the technology. A Facebook executive stated on email that the move would “slow some competitors down for a quarter or so”.

Antitrust law penalises business conduct that, to my mind, shows business acumen and is not entirely outrageous — it’s just that it’s not optimal for consumers.

Though Zuckerberg isn’t a monster, his strategy may have illegally eliminated competition.

UNCERTAIN OUTCOMES

Antitrust experts have hesitated to predict the outcomes of the suits against Facebook, though some note such cases are generally difficult to win.

The cases will turn on complex findings of fact. Antitrust law allows judges considerable discretion to apply standards and fashion remedies.

There are policy reasons not to break up the empire. Facebook has emphasised that if it is forced to sell Instagram and WhatsApp, the message sent to the business world is that “no sale will ever be final” — a merger or acquisition can always be undone. That’s particularly unsettling because the FTC approved Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

SUBOPTIMAL IF NOT UNLAWFUL

Whatever the result, the complaints filed in the suits — which make surprisingly lively reading — suggest that the first decades of social networking could have unfolded differently.

In these games of “what if?” that the cases invite us to play, it’s easy to imagine that consumers might now have a richer array of alternatives.

If the authorities prevail, there’s no way to turn back the clock to before the deals. But some degree of competition may be restored — with consumers one day benefiting from distinct offerings of the newly independent Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

And the precedent may give pause to firms before they enter into deals that diminish users’ choices.

Listen to cybersecurity experts reveal the tricks scammers and hackers have employed in 2020, as more work from home and are susceptible to phishing and other cybersecurity threats:

Dr Mark Cenite is Associate Dean (Undergraduate Education) at Nanyang Technological University’s College of Humanities, Arts, & Social Sciences. He teaches communication law at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

Unrepentant teen with a long list of offences is why some parents shouldn't breed

Nov 25, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership

Ralph Wee Yi Kai, a 19-year-old Singaporean man, has pleaded guilty to eight charges on Nov. 25 during his plead guilty mention before District Judge May Mesenas.

The charges include consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure at the Singapore Zoo, and committing mischief by damaging property, reported CNA.

Another six charges will be considered during his sentencing.

Probation is "not realistic"

Wee pleaded guilty via video link from his place in remand, where he has been since Nov. 6.

The prosecution strongly objected to a probation suitability report, noting that Wee is "beyond the control of his parents, which renders probation unsuitable", according to CNA.

The prosecution asserted that probation "is not realistic" for Wee, based on his repeated offences and conduct in court.

They cited his "blatant disregard for rules", and urged for a reformative training suitability report instead.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Melissa Lee said Wee "has a tendency to abuse drugs and alcohol", which caused him to behave aggressively towards his parents.

He also "posed a risk" to them, which led him to be admitted to the Institute of Mental Health.

"Never expected it to come to this"

Wee's defence lawyer Shashi Nathan requested for the addition of a probation suitability report, according to CNA.

Shashi maintains that his family is able to supervise Wee, and added that his client "comes from a good family" who are "able to look after him".

He said that Wee was undergoing "a severe emotional crisis" when he committed his offences, and shared that the case has also affected Wee's family, especially after their home address was released to the press.

"While Ralph understands that what he did was wrong, he never expected it to come to this," said Shashi.

Difference between probation and reformative training

Wee was ordered to go though both assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report, reported Yahoo News.

Offenders who undergo probation will not have a criminal record, while reformative training, which provides a more structured environment, results in a criminal record.

What Wee's lawyer said

Wee's lawyer said his client acted out after breaking up with his girlfriend, 18, who was the one who filmed the video of Wee backflipping in the zoo.

The defence lawyer, Shashi, said Wee spiralled into an emotional crisis as a result of his break-up.

Wee is homeschooled.

The court was told Wee saw a video of a man riding a giraffe and decided to make a video in the rhino enclosure, Yahoo News reported.

The ex-girlfriend had filmed the act and posted it on her private Snapchat account.

Wee posted it on his public TikTok account and a police report was made by a zoo personnel within the same day.

Wee removed the video when he was told to do so by the police, but reposted it on Dec. 18, before being told to remove it again, claiming he thought the video had been made private when he reposted it.

Wee had also included a link in his Instagram account biography to directed to a page selling t-shirts with the words "rhino ralph".

But he denied creating the merchandise profile.

He later removed the link.

Wee will return to court on Dec. 20 for his sentencing.

Timeline of events with updated details

Oct. 9, 2020, 2:40am: Allegedly committed an act of vandalism by hitting an information panel at a bus stop in Sixth Avenue, off Bukit Timah Road, causing S$900 in damage.

Allegedly caused damage to two cars -- S$2,800 to a Mercedes-Benz and more than S$1,600 to a BMW -- in nearby Sixth Crescent.

A taxi driver passing by reported him to the police, as Wee was standing in the middle of the road with a beer bottle in hand.

Dec. 16, 2020: Wee was placed on compulsory supervision for 60 months from Dec. 16. He was required to present himself for urine tests on each Tuesday and Thursday, but failed to turn up on four occasions.

He was placed on e-tagging during this period of time, after having been charged for his earlier offences.

He had to stay at home from 10pm to 6am as part of his bail conditions.

Dec. 17, 2020, 2.40pm: Accused of trespassing into the rhinoceros enclosure and taking a video.

Dec. 18, 2020: Reposted zoo video, despite taking it down earlier after being told to do so by the police. Told to remove video again.

Dec. 24, 2020: Accused of abusing a frog, which subsequently died, by hitting a ball against it on a foosball table, causing "unnecessary pain and suffering".

The incident allegedly took place at a Sentosa Cove property.

July 2021: First hauled to court and charged with two counts of mischief, as well as one count each of vandalism and criminal trespass.

Bail was then set at S$15,000.

Aug. 6, 2021: Allegedly consumed cannabis while out on bail. Arrested at his residence and two urine samples obtained tested positive for weed. S$15,000 bail revoked.

Sep. 14, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-vaporiser and six e-cigarette pods at a ward in the Institute of Mental Health.

Three police officers showed up at IMH, where Wee was warded, to arrest him for failing to attend court.

He was admitted to IMH due to his drug and alcohol abuse, as had acted aggressively towards his parents when they demanded the drugs from him.

He was warded in IMH due to the risk he posed to his parents.

Oct. 13, 2021: Charged with one count of drug consumption while still in remand.

Bail raised to S$20,000 and Wee was released.

While out on second bail, Wee committed a string of offences, including cutting his electronic tag, according to ST, as well as not reporting for his urine tests on a few occasions, CNA reported.

The prosecution has called for an urgent bail review hearing to have Wee's second bail revoked for the alleged fresh offences.

Oct. 26, 2021: Allegedly cut a S$100 GPS ankle tag at an address on Leedon Road at about 12:10am.

Prior to this act, Wee was upset at his father, who had asked Wee to sleep early since he had to report for his urine test in the morning.

After arguing with his father, Wee decided to leave the house, and used pliers to cut off his e-tag before cycling to his friend’s house.

Upon discovering that Wee was missing, his father called the police.

The e-tag, worth S$100, was damaged and could no longer be used.

It was found in Wee’s house.

Oct. 28, 2021: Allegedly possessed an e-cigarette pod at the Leedon Road address.

Nov. 5, 2021: Warrant of arrest issued, as Wee could not wake up to attend court.

Nov. 6, 2021: Wee arrested.

Nov. 12, 2021: Slapped with four additional charges.

Nov. 25, 2021: Pleaded guilty to consuming weed, causing unnecessary suffering to a frog, possessing imitation tobacco products, trespassing into a rhino enclosure, and committing mischief by damaging property belonging to others.

Ordered to go though assessments for a probation suitability report and a reformative training report.