When Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen appeared before Congress last week, it felt like it might finally be a turning point. Haugen’s testimony created a major crisis for a company that until recently seemed unable to be regulated, and unlikely to be broken up. Scandals before this have made splashes yet somehow haven’t resulted in meaningful change. But if history is any indication, the tide is about to turn.
Haugen, who revealed internal documents showing that the company was aware of its products' harms, said that she wishes to fix rather than destroy Facebook, but these are not the only two options. The third, regulation, is at its heart not about patching up broken, dangerous companies and their products but is about changing the social, political, and business landscape that allowed them to grow unchecked, operating as rapacious, destructive entities. It ensures not only that the present companies’ harms are stopped but also that new companies cannot take their place and continue the same destructive business models. As we approach peak Facebook news fatigue, it’s worth remembering that regulation of new technologies in this way has a strong historical precedent in the US. And this long lead up has almost always been part of it.
To understand how Facebook will likely land after its fall from grace we need to look at the striking similarities between earlier regulatory battles and what is going on now. Before there was Big Tech, there were the Big Three: Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors—and an infamous memo that cemented in the collective consciousness of the American public that strong regulation was a necessity, not a nicety. Though it may be difficult to see through the haze of history, there are important parallels between Big Tech today and the US auto industry in the mid-20th century, which also once seemed to be an unstoppable juggernaut.
The US government has a long history of regulating new technological infrastructures for consumer safety—from communications technologies like phones to energy technologies like oil to transportation technologies like cars. In each case, the difficulty of regulating these industries—due to how enmeshed they are in the functioning of the nation—was seen, initially, as a rationale for forgoing regulation. The idea that coal burning could be subject to laws, or that a meaningful attempt could be made to keep corporations from dumping all of their industrial pollutants into rivers until those rivers regularly caught on fire, seemed at first impossible. Ruled over by enormously powerful and profitable companies, destructive industries have often been given a free pass on the grounds that restraining them would be too hard.
This is because once technological systems are entrenched enough to do noticeable, widespread social and political damage, they have also already become essential infrastructures that are used widely enough to make their complete removal at least as harmful as their continued use. For each of these industries, their power seemed unshakable, and the newness of the technologies at the time seemed to mean that regulation would be impossibly tardy and regulators under-informed. Yet, each of these industries did ultimately face regulation, and often individual companies faced breakup, because at a certain point in this historical cycle the harms being inflicted rise to the level of a social or political crisis.
This is exactly the situation with Facebook. For years, the novelty of the internet economy insulated it, as a company and a product, from the same sort of consumer complaints, litigation, and corporate responsibility that dogged older technology companies producing more tangible goods, like cars or computers. When a 2016 memo from Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth declared that a loss of life would be worth the company’s growth, for instance, the company seemed to emerge unscathed. Even as whistleblower Sophie Zhang gathered evidence that the political manipulation and destructive use of the platform was a global problem, and as the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, the company’s leaders appeared largely untouchable, and calls to regulate Facebook seemed half-hearted and unlikely to succeed in the US. Meanwhile, calls to break its stranglehold over the information landscape of many other countries seemed nearly impossible. Breaking up the company and its properties—which in a deft move of online horizontal integration include WhatsApp, Instagram, and Oculus—looked to most technology commentators to be an unlikely, even unnecessary, prospect.
But the idea that Facebook’s technological underpinnings are supposedly so complex that they cannot be audited, and its business model so fast-moving that it cannot be slowed, is finally being overtaken by its undeniable dangers. A series of disastrous outcomes, from political manipulation of free elections to violence against minoritized populations to harm for young people, and even public health disinformation prolonging and worsening a pandemic, have destroyed the pleasant fiction that the company’s products produce a net positive for society.
In the case of the US auto industry, the need for not just regulation but also an enforcement agency to ensure compliance was similarly not immediately obvious. The necessity and wisdom of proactively regulating that infrastructural technology, instead of relying on the fiction that consumer choice was the primary mechanism for harm avoidance, was recognized only after decades of damage and years of whistleblowing and investigative journalism.
Like ubiquitous internet platforms, Detroit of the mid-20th century produced something most Americans felt they could not live without and quickly became dependent on. As suburban sprawl enveloped the areas around cities, racist resource allocation hollowed out urban centers and encouraged white flight. As a result, having one or more cars was increasingly a necessity to an ever larger number of Americans. State and federal government resources went toward creating ever more and wider roads to ensure that automobile traffic grew unchecked, even—or especially—at the expense of those who could not afford automobiles or who were structurally forbidden from moving out of neighborhoods increasingly cut in half and destroyed by eminent domain attempts to procure more land for the highways in and out of cities.
At this point in time, the Big Three also seemed unstoppable, rolling over the US landscape with the help of powerful business and government interests, while also illegally colluding with each other, and against public interest and public safety, for ever greater profits.
When the bombshell findings in lawyer and activist Ralph Nader’s 1965 bestseller Unsafe at Any Speed began to explode into US public discourse, auto executives lined up before Congress. They told the American public and those who represented them that they were doing their best to make cars safer and less polluting and that there was little they could do to immediately undo the harms produced by their product. Executives downplayed the scale of the public safety crisis and often claimed to be unaware of the extent of their products’ harms to consumers. Their answers were, of course, largely a charade aimed at saving profits and staving off regulation for as long as possible. The president of Ford at the time, Arjay Miller, recounted in vivid detail how his Lincoln Continental was safe enough to save his life when he got into a freeway accident—the doors didn’t jam, the gas tank didn’t explode, and Miller escaped unharmed. He pledged to ensure Ford did all they could in the coming years to improve safety even further.
Although regulation was introduced, for years after that, Ford cut corners on safety, producing cars like the Ford Pinto that removed key safety features in order to get to market quickly and hold down manufacturing costs to reap maximum profit. The infamous Ford Pinto “memo,” which was uncovered by Mother Jones investigative reporters in 1977, detailed the company’s horrifying cost analysis of past and future accidents. According to the memo, the gruesome deaths and full-body burns suffered by Pinto occupants in rear-end collisions amounted to an acceptable loss because, once lawsuits or other settlements were paid out, they would amount to less than the cost of fixing the Pinto design to prevent the gas tank from exploding. The cost of fixing the design was $11 per car. After public and governmental pressure, it was eventually implemented through a recall demanded by the recently created National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Today, a similar scenario is playing out in the realm of Big Tech—a term that has become shorthand for ad-driven platforms and internet-enabled arbitrage companies that lower the cost of goods and services by squeezing both workers and consumers. Whistleblowers from multiple companies, most of them women and many of them women of color, have stepped into the role Nader occupied in the '60s—from Ifeoma Ozoma, who stood up to Pinterest and subsequently worked to create legislation to ban the abusive practice of nondisclosure agreements for whistleblowers in California, and Timnit Gebru, who alerted the world about Google’s lack of commitment to AI ethics in practice, to Sophie Zhang and now Frances Haugen. In each case, the companies have similarly attempted to silence, fire, or discredit these workers, reserving their harshest treatment for women of color.
The need for changing the power structures of this sector are critical not just for society but also for democracy: As Haugen’s testimony last week showed, Facebook marshaled its massive profits not toward fixing known problems but toward avoiding being perceived as having caused those problems. And just like Arjay Miller, Mark Zuckerberg has said whatever is needed to delay and deflect regulation.
History is not a static pattern, and events often don’t repeat in the exact same sequence, but there are clues as to what will come next. When a disaster or series of disasters mobilizes a large number of people to work together for positive change, corporations cannot ultimately win. Facebook and other major Silicon Valley corporations birthed in the early internet boom are entering the stage when public disaffection with their products is likely to provoke robust regulation, backed by a major new government enforcement agency. Within a few years, we will likely see the breakup of several of these corporations’ empires, regardless of which political party next takes the White House. In response, tech companies will continue to race against regulatory enforcement to gain control over the democratically elected bodies that would dare assert dominance over them, just as other powerful industries did before them.
This next phase will be difficult and dangerous. When corporations can no longer deny or hide their responsibility, they use the rhetoric of cooperation to try to rewrite reality and co-opt the process—to keep regulation from hurting their massive profits or breaking up their business empires. As we enter this stage of building our 21st-century infrastructure by reorienting the powerful, centralized, and broken systems that currently threaten to undo everything from public health to free elections, we must be wary: Tech giants, now certain that regulation is coming, will cooperate just enough to ensure they don’t have to fix their metaphorical gas tanks. Like the Big Three, they will try to continue to do business as usual.
The past shows us that the problems we are facing are not brand-new. Strong enforcement will be needed to reduce the harms these tech companies have caused for decades at great benefit to themselves. Yet, although the patterns of neglect, greed, and harm are the same, the devil is in the details of each technology—whether it’s cars or internet platforms. The newness of the technology alters each new disaster just enough to defamiliarize the situation and to allow people to forget striking similarities with the past. When it comes to Big Tech, however, we finally no longer have any illusion that we’ve seen this all before.
Updated 10/20/2021 3:00 pm ET: This story and its subheadline have been updated to clarify that lawmakers had begun to regulate the auto industry in the years preceding the Pinto memo.