Privacy, the 1st Amendment, and antitrust allegations: What is going on in the digital world?

First Amendment, Privacy

By: Lisa Hoover

Mark Zuckerberg during a 2018 keynote by Anthony Quintano.
Mark Zuckerberg during a 2018 keynote by Anthony Quintano

I caught some snippets of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress on the radio recently, and I am really curious to see how all of this plays out. Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, was ostensibly testifying about the company’s plans to release a cryptocurrency called Libra. However, some members of Congress used it as a chance to grill Zuckerberg about other concerns regarding the social media giant. 

Questions ranged from biases in Facebook’s advertising algorithms, the Cambridge Analytica breech, and fact checking of political advertising. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg about political advertising. While Zuckerberg said lying in advertising “is bad,” he declined to agree to remove false advertising, saying that whether a post is removed “depends on the context.” Similarly, Cindy Axne of Iowa asked how Facebook plans to prevent election interference. She also asked about what data the company collects indirectly on people who are not Facebook users. 

During the company’s testimony before Congress last year, Wired writer Issie Lapowsky referred to Facebook’s “14 years of uninhibited growth” enabling “Facebook to play an unprecedented, even dangerous role in democracy.” This followed revelations that Facebook sold ads to Russia during the presidential election and reports that Cambridge Analytica had accessed 50 million Facebook users’ data without consent. 

Zuckerberg seemed to acknowledge these concerns when he said “I believe this is something that needs to get built, but I understand we’re not the ideal messenger right now. We’ve faced a lot of issues over the past few years.” 

Facebook has also recently faced calls to “break up” the company. This movement also includes a probe by state attorneys general into whether Facebook has engaged in any antitrust abuses. Closer to home in the library world, ALA recently sent a report to the House Judiciary Committee investigating digital market competition regarding MacMillan’s recent decision to impose an embargo on new e-book releases to libraries. 

The Bosses of the Senate political cartoon by Joseph Keppler, 1889. This cartoon poked fun at the concentration of industry to the point of monopoly and the effect of those monopolies on politics prior to the passage of the Sherman AntiTrust Act.
The Bosses of the Senate political cartoon by Joseph Keppler, 1889. This cartoon poked fun at the concentration of industry to the point of monopoly and the effect of those monopolies on politics prior to the passage of the Sherman AntiTrust Act.

This serves as a good reminder that technology brings so many benefits and challenges for librarians. Privacy concerns have spiked in the library community recently following the acquisition of by LinkedIn. We certainly know many of our patrons are using social media. I believe that these challenges are only going to become more complex and that librarians can serve a central role in educating our patrons and the public in general on privacy concerns and the other ethical issues surrounding technology. 

What I find most interesting here is the dichotomy between the call for better privacy protections for users, while also calling for Facebook to censor advertising and posting on the platform. The focus on how (more so, it seems to me, than whether) Facebook should police advertisers is really interesting to me. Commercial speech – like advertising – is entitled to less protection than other forms of speech under Central Hudson Gas & Electric v. Public Service Commission, but it is still protected. And political speech is, of course, at the core of what the 1st Amendment is intended to protect. 

But what about when that political speech is lying? What about when it is purchased by someone outside the United States, with the intention of impacting our elections? Do these things outweigh the importance of 1st Amendment protections? And is it up to Facebook to figure all of this out? Should the government force them to do so? These are complex questions without simple answers. 

The increasing focus on privacy and antitrust issues, along with how to handle advertising via social media, could mean big changes on the horizon and librarians would do well to consider the potential implications and how we can help our patrons navigate and understand digital consumption. 

Reference list: 

Albanese, A. (2019) Congress looking into anticompetitive behavior in the digital library market. Publisher’s Weekly. Retrieved from October 25, 2019.

CBS News. (2019) Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faces sharp questioning in Congress about Libra cryptocurrency. CBS News. Retrieved from October 24, 2019. 

Paul, K. (2019) Ocasio-Cortez confronts Zuckerberg over Cambridge Analytica during testimony – as it happened. The Guardian. Retrived from October 24, 2019

Lapowsky, I. (2018) Mark Zuckerberg answers to Congress for Facebook’s troubles. Wired. Retrieved from October 24, 2019.

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