BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
Because Menlo Park and the mid-Peninsula is essentially a company town for Facebook, there was an unusual interest here in CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress about the use of data from the social network by a political operation.
I have a dim view of Congressional hearings. Starting with the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 1950s, they’ve always been a show intended for the TV cameras, where more heat emerges than light.
The lawmakers preen for the cameras waiting for their closeup. The witnesses, if they’re smart, have their lines down pat.
In last week’s hearings, Zuckerberg was tripped up only a couple of times.
One was when Sen. Dick Durbin asked, “Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?”
“Um,” Zuckerberg said before a long pause. “No.”
“If you’ve messaged anybody this week, would you share with us the names of the people you’ve messaged?” Durbin asked.
“Senator, no, I would probably not choose to do that publicly here,” Zuckerberg said.
“I think that might be what this is all about — your right to privacy, the limits of your right to privacy, and how much you’d give away in modern America,” Durbin said.
The exchange didn’t shed much light on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but it made for good TV.
For me, the real issue is the lack of competition for companies like Facebook and Google.
Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Zuckerberg if Facebook was a monopoly.
“If I buy a Ford and it doesn’t work well and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy,” Graham said during Tuesday’s hearing. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?”
Zuckerberg didn’t really respond. He said there are other tech companies that provide services similar to those offered by Facebook. But he didn’t say there are other companies that provide the same service as Facebook.
Graham’s point was that a company like Facebook can be regulated by the government, which is often ham-handed and wasteful, or it can be regulated through competition.
Right now, Facebook isn’t regulated by either the government or competition. As a result, Facebook is free to abuse the trust of its 2 billion users with little or no consequences.
With competition, if one company abuses its users, the users can jump to the competitor.
If companies like Facebook and Google want to avoid government regulation, they need competition.
A decade ago, Facebook’s competitor was MySpace. At its peak in 2006, MySpace became the most visited social networking site in the world. News Corp., the media company headed by Rupert Murdoch, bought it for $580 million. The new owners then began to flood the site with ads, driving the users to Facebook. MySpace still exists, but it’s a shadow of its former self.
Could MySpace make a comeback? I don’t know. But the Valley is full of entrepreneurs with great ideas and investors who are willing to back those ideas. Maybe somebody will dream up a competitor to Facebook. Or maybe consumers will start spending more time on Nextdoor and SnapChat.
Competition will make companies straighten out and fly right.
Google’s search engine desperately needs competition. The data they’re amassing on users must be staggering. And I could fill today’s edition of the Post with complaints people have made about how Google’s search engine is rigged in one way or another.
One Google competitor worth checking out is DuckDuckGo, which promises users they won’t be tracked like Google. They need to do more to get their name out there, though.
It’s also possible that Facebook and Google want government regulation. In many industries, regulations are designed to protect the big companies from competitors by making it too expensive for newcomers to enter the market. For instance, if Congress were to require Facebook and any other social media site to hire an army of fact checkers and content screeners, that expense might keep a startup from launching a site to challenge Facebook. Eventually, the regulators become captive of the companies they regulate.
As for the privacy issue, wake up folks. Anything you post online can be used against you in the future by businesses and the government. The best policy is to limit what you post or not even use Facebook if you’re concerned about privacy. You are in control of what you give companies like Facebook and Google.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.