The World of Fifty (Interoperable) Facebooks on SSRN

I have uploaded The World of Fifty (Interoperable) Facebooks (forthcoming in Seton Hall Law Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, 2021) to ssrn. Access it here. Below, I paste the abstract:

This essay envisions a “world of fifty facebooks,” where numerous companies would offer interoperable services, similar to the one currently provided by Facebook Inc. As is the case with telephones, where customers of AT&T can call and text those of T-Mobile or Verizon, users of A-Book should be able to find, communicate with and see the content of customers of B-Book, C-Book, etc. Facebook Inc. should be obliged by the law to allow potential competitors to become interoperable with its platform and to grant them access to its network. Today, Facebook Inc. uses its artificially created monopolistic position to impose excessive costs and unnecessary harms on consumers and on the society.

A contribution of this piece is a new theory of “price” that Facebook Inc. charges for its services, going beyond the conventional wisdom that users pay for access with their “personal data and attention.” Instead, it argues that Facebook Inc. imposes on its users: (i) cognitive harms (emotional manipulation, risk of psychological and mental of health problems); (ii) behavioral harms (unwanted purchases, wasted time, risk of addiction); and (iii) privacy/security harms (risk of having the sets of amassed personal data stolen by hackers). The company also (iv) freerides on users’ creative content and labor. Each of these harms constitutes a higher “price” or lower quality than could be available in a competitive market. Importantly, these costs do not result from the necessary features of “a facebook” but rather from Facebook Inc.’s data-collection-heavy, targeted-advertising-driven, business model. However, less harmful models are available.

The essays surveys possible legal strategies for achieving and sustaining “the world of fifty facebooks.” As the debates about regulation of large platforms continue in the US and the EU, the piece serves as a reminder that, as a society, we face a choice. We might accept the central role that platforms like Facebook Inc. currently play in our socioeconomic lives and focus solely on taming the most abusive behaviors they engage in. Alternatively, we might embrace the fact that there’s nothing natural nor necessary about this position and concentrate on re-structuring the online power relationships. Doing so requires imagination and political will, and this essay aims at fostering both.

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