It was announced this week that North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein will be part of the leadership team of fellow attorneys general from across the nation that have joined together in a bipartisan investigation into Facebook.
It’s high time that Facebook is brought to account for the role it plays in the marketplace, both in our economy and in terms of electoral politics.
There has been no shortage of coverage on the role Facebook plays in our society, but now it seems to be receiving ample coverage in terms more familiar to those in history class than in contemporary conversation: a monopoly.
The difference between monopolies as we think of them historically and the ones arising today is in the actual good or service being monopolized.
To borrow a local example of monopolies, we can visit North Carolina’s own J.B. Duke — a humble university in Durham was named after his father. Duke was an industrialist and robber baron in the same vein as Rockefeller and Carnegie; he cornered the market on tobacco, buying out scores of competitors in the industry. By the early 20th century, his grip on the market compelled Theodore Roosevelt’s Justice Department to file an antitrust complaint, and the firm was forced to dissolve a decade later into multiple entities.
Early examples of monopolies are far easier to understand; there are tangible commodities and the effects are clear. With a producer of tobacco, it means there are no competitors to drive down costs. That’s bad for the consumer, and it’s a fundamental aspect of a free market that the government plays a role in upholding.
But now, when the commodity is data, or some other esoteric good, the effect is harder to see. Too often, we consider Facebook and other social media purely in the terms of what we get out of the service. But we forget that, yes, it is a business, and a quite large one at that. Using Facebook means giving your data to the company and being served a barrage of ads based upon what an algorithm thinks you might want to buy.
The business side of social media can be unnerving enough, but where we should really pause is the role those advertisers play when the content is around political communications.
Part of the position of Matt Stoller, author of the upcoming book “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy,” is that what used to be a decentralized advertising system, with thousands of newspapers, magazines, radios and televisions to choose from, is now distilled into basically two: Google and Facebook.
Stoller recently wrote about this in an op-ed published Oct. 17 in the New York Times (“Tech companies are destroying democracy and the free press”).
Many of the laws we operate under were written years, if not decades, before the internet was even a consideration. They’re far outdated, and technology innovates and recreates daily.
That’s why this bipartisan, nationwide effort by attorneys general is so important. It needs to be made clear that a monopolization of information is not a partisan issue.
The sharing of information online should not be in the vise grip of modern-day robber barons like Mark Zuckerberg.
All North Carolinians should be proud of the leadership exhibited by Attorney General Stein and the N.C. Department of Justice in this effort.
This column appeared in the Salisbury Post on Thursday, October 24th.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.