One piece of interesting news this week was that Tulsi Gabbard, one of the massive number of Democrats trying to unseat President Trump, sued Google for election interference. The amount of the suit is $50 million, which isn’t close to material—but, should she win (and she has a decent case), it would set a precedent that could have worldwide implications for all social media companies because they are tied so tightly.
It got me thinking about what is likely the number of times a social network form must have impacted an election process adversely from foreign government interference to simply screwing up and denying a politician voice as was the case here.
If we broaden this; social networks are impacting investment decisions, they are impacting medical decisions (the spread of false anti-vaccination messages), they are impacting how we feel about the brands we buy and the people we know, and they are impacting our own reputations. They have, largely—up until now—been given a pass for all the damage that their tools have done, but that may be ending. If Tulsi is successful with her lawsuit not only do I expect more and more expensive suits to result against Google, but I expect far more action against properties like Facebook as well.
It is interesting to note that similar efforts against gun manufacturers have largely failed (though that too may be changing) due to the NRA (the NRA is clearly having issues) but there is no NRA protecting social media and there is even the chance that success here could provide a precedent that could have even broader implications than just social media.
Let’s talk about how this could change the face of social media, and potentially more, this week.
Social Media’s Pass Is Ending
This last week Facebook was hit with a $5 billion fine and their CEO Mark Zuckerberg was allegedly made personally responsible for compliance as a result of their massive data theft. While this fine certainly seemed large, it too was a drop in the bucket against Facebook’s resources. But, should they have another breach, it opens the door for the US government to go directly after Zuckerberg and it is incredibly rare that a CEO is put at such high personal risk. Facebook likely agreed to this because the prior consent decree had a calculated penalty that significantly exceeded Facebook’s resources.
“Violations of the FTC consent decree also carry the possibility of fines that could top $40,000 per “violation.” With more than 200 million Americans using Facebook, the fines could — at least in theory — reach into the trillions of dollars if the FTC found violations. (Facebook last year earned profit of $15.9 billion on $40.7 billion in revenue.)” Personally, I think the US should have used this to just nationalize Facebook but that’s me.
In addition, both Facebook and Google are under anti-trust review and both are so dominant and have had particularly poor anti-trust controls that it is very likely one or both of them will be massively fined or broken up when the investigation concludes. Both firms have relied on a government policy of indemnification that has largely evaporated thanks mostly to evidence that the Russians used them to significantly impact the last US election.
This means that the protections they were initially granted have all but evaporated and Google doesn’t have the connections and protections from the President’s office they once had. In fact, their prior connection to President Obama might be working against them now because they appeared in hindsight to mostly just use the guy and not really help him much.
Governments typically don’t like the existence of companies that challenge them for power and control and the social networks have been solidly connected to uprisings, revolts, mass demonstrations (often resulting in violence and death), and fake news stories also connected to violence and death. The easiest way to correct the related problems, from various government perspectives, is likely to shut them down and there is a growing desire to make that happen much of which is focused on Facebook but bleeds over to Google and Twitter.
Wrapping Up: Change Is in the Wind
I think Tulsi Gabbard’s lawsuit is just tip of this iceberg and a potential showcase for how vulnerable these social networks have become. Zuckerberg is now personally responsible, and the next breach could strip him of much of his wealth and even his freedom. Google is now being held accountable as well for the damage done using their tools, and in this case, for incredibly foolish mistakes which might force them to focus on the problem (but I doubt it given they traditionally have the attention span of a 4 year old on sugar).
Unless something dramatically changes about how seriously these companies take their potential to do harm, I think we are seeing their sunset. Another major breach, another use of their tools to alter a major election anyplace in the world, or should the tools be used to execute a major attack on the US would all likely result in their end.
And you know, they’ll only have themselves to blame. The problems killing them were evident early on, they just didn’t prioritize fixing them. That’s likely going to hurt—it’s going to hurt a lot.