What Would Happen If Facebook Failed? ‘Catastrophic’ Consequences, Says Oxford Report
Society has become dependent on ‘Big Tech’ platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter to handle its data, with most people unaware of the rights they sign off on when they open their lives up to these social media platforms. Taking Facebook as a case study — a platform that is still growing with respect to revenue and users, but is also coming under increasing pressure from regulatory authorities — researchers from Oxford University analyzed a hypothetical scenario in which users around the world quit Facebook, most of its advertisers pull out, and the site itself goes defunct. This thought experiment aimed to reveal the ethical, legal and cultural repercussions of Facebook’s enmeshment with its users, and to demonstrate what we need to do in order to safeguard the decades of data that we have so readily handed over to the company.
The hypothetical scenario researchers predicted may not be so far off from reality. While Facebook continues to amass users (having reached a historic 2.45 billion), it’s also witnessing an exodus, both of users and advertisers. A 2019 survey shows Facebook had lost 15 million users since 2017, a figure that has likely increased since. While relatively insignificant, the figure demonstrates a slow countercurrent, for reasons including Facebook’s (losing) battles with data privacy and a fake news infodemic, in addition to users, followed by advertisers, leaving for greener, more hip pastures.
If this exodus were to escalate, in line with how Facebook’s own problems with regulation are increasing, it might be in our interest to start thinking about Facebook’s future, and the future of the data within the platform. “The demise of a global online communication platform such as Facebook could have catastrophic social and economic consequences for innumerable communities that rely on the platform on a daily basis,” the authors write in the paper published in the journal Internet Policy Review.
Communities, mainly in developing countries around the world — especially those dependent on media and socio-political ecosystems for vital information and news — rely on Facebook, where the tech giant “has become almost synonymous with the internet,” the paper states. In addition, existing users — both active and passive — have signed off their data to Facebook, which needs to be safeguarded in order to protect their users’ privacy and consent.
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The potential data loss that accompanies Facebook’s demise could also compromise future generations’ ability to comprehend the role Facebook played in shaping the Internet generation and its discourse, almost as a cultural and historical resource. The authors write, “Not only is Facebook becoming a significant digital cultural artefact, it is arguably the first such artefact to have truly global proportions.”
To counter these issues, the authors propose categorizing Facebook as a “systemically important technological institution” (SITI) that treats the tech giant much like how we treat public utilities such as water — subject to a regulatory, public framework. This could help keep alive the parts of Facebook that assist communities or establish a crossover process that helps them get set up on alternative platforms. Bringing Facebook into public regulation would also bolster the creation of stronger data privacy laws, and create space to entertain a more bottom-up method to manage data, in which users can safeguard their data and Facebook merely acts as a trustee required to do what’s best for its consumers. In addition, Facebook could also be considered a digital heritage site, and be regulated by similar rules we impose on UNESCO world heritage sites with respect to protecting cultural legacies.
All of these measures, however, need greater investigation and research to determine their possibility and feasibility, the authors note. As a first step, we need to stop thinking of Facebook as an evil corporation that needs to go down, and start considering the ethical, legal and cultural harms that will arise in the (currently less probable) case of its demise.
Facebook and other tech giants are “too big to fail,” the authors note. Not because they’re too powerful to go down, but because they’re too important to be destroyed in a hasty, disorganized way.