There are few companies that have become as intertwined in people’s lives as Facebook and Google.
Facebook boasted more than 2.7 billion active monthly users during the second quarter of 2020, a number that has more than doubled since the social-media platform surpassed the one-billion user mark in 2012. The company’s growth is due in part to acquisitions of two other social-media firms: in 2012 it spent US$1 billion for Instagram and two years later it pressed the pay button for WhatsApp for US$19 billion.
Google, which bought YouTube, the popular video-sharing platform, in 2006 for US$1.65 billion, also owns a host of apps such as Google Maps that people use every day. Google has become so pervasive in our lives that estimates say 3.8 million Google searches are initiated every minute.
While the U.S. Federal Trade Commission approved Facebook’s takeovers of Instagram and WhatsApp at the time, on Dec. 9 the FTC, along with 48 U.S. states and territories, launched an antitrust lawsuit accusing the company of eliminating competition by scooping up Instagram and WhatsApp.
Meanwhile, Google faces three antitrust lawsuits from the U.S. Department of Justice, two of which were filed Dec. 15 and 17 and are supported by more than 30 U.S. states. The lawsuits claim Google has used deals with cellphone manufacturers and internet-browser creators to package its popular search engine with their products, squeezing out competitors in the process.
It’s a moment of reckoning for the internet giants that had previously seemed beyond the reach of legislators and regulators.
But the problems with Facebook and Google’s growth go beyond mere competition (or the lack thereof). The power that social-media conglomerates have accumulated has gone unchecked for many years, and only in 2020 has it been confronted. And the companies seem finally to be taking note of the increased scrutiny.
In 2020, YouTube began removing content that contained false information, and Twitter, a separate social-media platform, began labelling misleading tweets about COVID-19 and the U.S. presidential election campaign, including many from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in October reversed his stance on defending Holocaust deniers’ rights to post their opinions on the platform, backing down after years of criticism from those who believe Facebook has acted too slowly to fight the spread of hate from its users.
There has also been economic pushback against Facebook and Google. The two companies have also posted content from news outlets around the world without compensation. In April, Australia, on behalf of its local publishers, fought back, saying Google and Facebook would have to start paying news outlets to share news content in Australia.
The tech giants’ response was defiant: it threatened to block Australian users of Facebook and Google products from sharing news content.
France has also ordered Google to start paying news outlets for sharing content and ordered Google to negotiate a repayment scheme with French news outlets.
The lobby group Friends of Canadian Broadcasting wants Canada to follow Australia and France’s lead, and federal Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault said in September the government is considering instituting similar rules.
It’s unclear whether the recently launched antitrust lawsuits will lead to fairer behaviour from the likes of Facebook or Google, or whether the trend toward increased monitoring of inappropriate posts from users of their products will continue.
What is clear, however, is that the digital landscape has begun to shift, in a direction that could make social-media platforms fairer and safer places to browse.