Up until Friday morning, it looked like Facebook’s recent travails couldn’t get any worse.
Two days earlier, the world’s biggest social network was knocked offline nearly all day, infuriating tens of millions of users and costing Facebook a fortune in lost advertising revenues.
The next day, two of the company’s most prominent executives quit, in an apparent dispute over a major shift in strategy proposed by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. The company this week also managed to censor presidential candidate and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s ad that called for an antitrust breakup of Facebook.
Oh, and news reports said Facebook is under criminal investigation for illegally sharing user data with other technology companies.
Then from New Zealand came 17 minutes of horror. That’s how long it took Facebook to stop transmitting live video shot by a maniac during the terrorist attack in the city of Christchurch.
It was a bloody climax to a series of catastrophes, making what came before seem trivial — and in a sense, it was.
But the events of the week should make it far tougher for Zuckerberg to reorganize Facebook around two business models — the low-privacy, ad-sponsored Facebook, and a new service built around instant messaging apps that promises strict protection of each user’s personal data.
This will be like changing tires on a moving car. The departures of Chris Daniels, former leader of Facebook’s WhatsApp instant messaging service, and Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, suggest the two men want no part of this daunting task.
Facebook will also have its hands full fighting off Warren’s call for antitrust action, a move that may generate considerable support among Republicans convinced that the company stifles conservative ideas.
Already Facebook has managed to fumble in its own end zone by briefly blocking the Massachusetts Democrat’s ads in support of a Facebook breakup. The company called it a misunderstanding, but before it was cleared up, Texas GOP Senator Ted Cruz had rallied to her defense. That might be an omen of bipartisan nightmares to come.
There is also the federal criminal investigation into whether Facebook willfully violated a 2011 agreement with the Federal Trade Commission setting strict limits on how the company shares its users’ data with other companies. This one might take a while to shake out, but the consequences could be ugly; already, the FTC is considering fines that could reach into the billions of dollars.
And then there’s the Christchurch massacre and that terrible 17 minutes of video. Perhaps Facebook couldn’t have completely blocked access to its live video service, given that viewers watch many more than 1 billion live videos per day. But why did this one run on so long? This is far from the first time Facebook Live has transmitted an act of violence. How is it that a company as smart and as rich as Facebook wasn’t ready for the next one?
Roger McNamee thinks it’s because Facebook doesn’t have to be ready.
“Society hasn’t exacted a price,” said McNamee, an early Facebook investor and the author of “Zucked,” a sharp critique of the company’s business practices.
There have been so many Facebook foul-ups. And after each fresh catastrophe, company founder Zuckerberg adopts the manner of a shamefaced schoolboy and vows to do better. And then it’s business as usual. “There’s no incentive to clean up their act,” McNamee said.
Jonathan Taplin has a simple solution to this current problem. Author of a book on social media, “Move Fast and Break Things,” Taplin said Facebook should stop running live video streams, replacing them with some kind of delayed broadcast so it can review images and when necessary, prevent others from viewing them.
“The notion that you have the right to have everything uploaded in real time — who says?” Taplin said. “We need to slow down.”
Facebook Live loses much of its charm if the video isn’t truly live, so the company may resist this idea. Taplin has an answer for that: doing away with a critical part of telecommunications law that protects companies such as Facebook from liability for what their users publish.
“We have to make them responsible for what’s on their platform,” Taplin said. “You can guarantee that if they could be sued for this stuff, they’d stop it.”
It’s unlikely Congress would go this far. But lawmakers have already modified the law to make Internet companies accountable for materials related to sex trafficking. And Cruz, for one, said he’s willing to do away with the broader liability protection in the law.
Changing the law will affect all Internet sites, not just Facebook. That would probably make those other publishers far more cautious — and a lot less friendly to free speech.
So another atrocity broadcast live could become a nightmare for the entire Internet, not just Facebook.Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.