It’s the Monopoly, stupid: why you should care about competition law

By Cori Crider

Today I want to explain why Foxglove is leaping into competition – that is, the law of competition and antitrust. 

Sounds a bit fiddly, right? Something for boffin economists and grey-suited regulators?

We don’t think so. We see the movement against tech monopoly as THE most important part of the fight to make tech fair. We have a major stake in it – and so do you.

We’ve spent three years fighting for tech workers and taking down unfair government tech systems that punish vulnerable people. So why do we care about board rooms, buyouts and monopolies? 

Let’s talk about Molly Russell.

Facebook and Insta: deadly by design

Last month, a coroner’s court in London found that social media, and specifically Instagram posts featuring self-harm and suicide, contributed “in a more than minimal way” to the death of the teenager Molly Russell. She died, the verdict finds: “from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.”

She isn’t alone. Facebook (who owns Instagram) now faces a slew of lawsuits from bereaved families who report their kids getting thinner and thinner, or more and more withdrawn into a rabbit hole of images glorifying self-harm, until one day they were gone.

We’ve had a depressing insider’s view of this problem at Foxglove, because we’ve worked to support Facebook content moderators since day one. These are the front-line workers fighting day in and out to keep toxic content off social media and away from your kids. 

The picture they paint is grim: moderators are well-intentioned (and traumatised) but there just aren’t enough of them to spot and handle emergencies like Molly’s. 

An Instagram moderator reflecting on the Russell verdict told the Daily Mail: “I think they [Facebook] still could do much, much better – and I don’t think they are prioritising it money-wise. I feel like they are cutting costs sometimes.”

In short, even after so many deaths, the systems Facebook rolls out to protect kids at the back-end are a flimsy sticking plaster. They come nowhere close to meeting the task.

But of course no tragedy is simple. Is it right to say that monopoly killed Molly Russell? 

Toxic viral monopolies

Facebook’s own internal documents suggest that harms to kids are, at least in part, a story of a company abusing its power. 

Disclosures from the whistleblower Frances Haugen teach us that Facebook’s own experts knew of the potential harms to teen girls from using Instagram – but didn’t fix the underlying incentives that drive it. 

Leaked internal presentations admit that “aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm” that send struggling kids into a “downward spiral” in which “mental health outcomes […] can be severe.”

If the company knew of these risks, why didn’t it act sooner? 

The short answer is that social media depends on advertising, which means it depends on virality. Keeping you watching, posting, and sharing is the sole source of their income. Turn virality down at the source and Zuckerberg’s profits wither away. 

Without pressure from regulators or competitors, Facebook chose, as Frances Haugen testified, “astronomical profits before people.” 

Runaway viral posts, creepy ads everywhere and cut-rate moderation: these are all crappy parts of Facebook’s service that now seem to us to be ubiquitous features of social media.

But they’re not. They only seem ubiquitous because Facebook owns nearly all of these services. 

In that environment, can we really say that our competition law and regulators are doing their job?

Why breaking up social media may be the only way to restore sanity to the public square

“Competition is only a click away”. Tech giants have run this myth again and again to defend their vast size and profits, and against growing calls to break them up. 

This ignores that for years Facebook has been buying up upstarts – like Instagram – and subjecting them to the same viral, click-baity dynamics. WhatsApp got swallowed by Zuckerberg too.

That’s what monopolies do: buy the competition. 

For the last forty years, modern antitrust doctrine has tended to treat this issue – services which get worse and worse because there’s nowhere else to go – as someone else’s problem. Because you pay for Facebook not in cash but in your data, the thinking goes, there’s no role for competition enforcers. 

We disagree.

At Foxglove we think regulators have to start thinking laterally about the aims and purposes of competition law, and to observe what is really happening because of concentration in tech markets.

If Facebook was not the only form of social media in most of the world – in some countries it is effectively the entire internet – would Mark Zuckerberg’s business decision to do so little about harmful virality, or to spend so little on moderation, have such destructive consequences? 

You could vote with your feet and go somewhere more decent. Less click-baity. So could your kids. 

That’s what’s at stake in the anti-monopoly movement. There’s a world to win.

Making good trouble

To be clear, not every social problem can be resolved through competition law. 

But, as with recent debates about algorithmic power in government, too much is at stake to leave questions around the use or limits of these laws to be resolved in technocratic spaces. That is why we’re demanding a seat at the table – not just for us, but for people like you.

We are actively exploring litigation in the anti-monopoly space. If you or anyone you know are interested in making good trouble along these lines then, please – get in touch.