Antitrust Murmurs Underscore Facebook Hearing On Political Censorship

A top Republican lawmaker today publicly mused about Facebook not having enough online competition.

In the early days of Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg encouraged his colleagues to “move fast and break things.”

The mantra has since fallen out of favor at the company, but it has seemingly only just begun to sink in with U.S. lawmakers, who seem ever more willing to move (albeit slowly) and break up Facebook.

That revelation comes thanks to House judiciary committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who asked Facebook’s vice president of global policy management, Monika Bickert, during a hearing Tuesday to defend how a lack of online competition in the space benefits consumers.

Republicans convened the hearing — also featuring testimony from Juniper Downs, YouTube’s global head of public policy and government relations, and Nick Pickles, Twitter’s senior strategist for public policy — to discuss what lawmakers said is censorship of conservative content on the three companies’ platforms. While there’s no evidence that is the case, it has nevertheless become a favored GOP talking point after the Cambridge Analytica scandal and numerous other alleged misdeeds came to light — some undertaken on Facebook.

“All three of you represent companies that have very strong, in many cases dominant market shares in the sectors that you provide services,” Goodlatte said, setting the stage for his line of questioning.

“All other things being equal, which company is likelier to be concerned about consumers leaving in response to discriminatory filtering practices — one with a 75 percent market share or one with 10 percent?” he asked.

Bickert maintained that market share is irrelevant for Facebook because it doesn’t “want anybody on our platform to feel discriminated against,” regardless of political beliefs.

Goodlatte asked more pointedly, “Do you think the lack of competition in your space does not in any way affect that position?”

“Right now, the average user of social media in the United States uses eight ... internet communication services,” she countered. “So clearly people have a choice in the United States when they go online, and Facebook is one service they can use, but they can also use many others.”

“But Facebook owns more than one of those, right?” Goodlatte asked. 

Bickert replied that the company owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — some of the top internet communication services in the U.S. “But again, users have a lot of choice here, as do advertisers,” she said.

A group of protesters temporarily interrupted her response, holding aloft an updated version of a classic political cartoon depicting Standard Oil as an octopus wrapping its tentacles around vital industries, the U.S. Capitol and the White House.

In place of a Standard Oil tank, the new octopus features Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Goodlatte ended with another point hinting at regulation of all three online companies, noting that they currently enjoy so-called Section 230 protection, which shields them from liability for what users post on the sites.

He wondered if that should continue to be the case.

“Traditional newspapers and programming networks have a legal obligation to curb defamation over their outlets,” Goodlatte said. “Why should your company be treated differently than these other nonutilities?”