NBC’s latest release of 7,000 pages of leaked internal Facebook documents has revealed how Facebook treated user data as leverage with external developers and spun anti-competitive moves as privacy improvements. As members of the press and civil society continue to inspect this massive volume of information in the documents, here are the most important things to look for from an antitrust and competition policy perspective.
How Facebook Leaders Internally View the Market
The first thing to look for is communications that help illustrate Facebook’s internal thinking about the market it operates in, its position, and the threats it faces. For any antitrust investigations around Facebook, one of the most relevant questions is how the company’s market itself is legally categorized and defined. Often companies facing scrutiny will argue that the market they operate in is enormous and diverse, with various competitors at all levels.
When Facebook’s public policy director Matt Perault testified at a House Judiciary Committee antitrust hearing that other Big Tech companies are the competitors to Facebook, it was an effort to try to minimize Facebook’s own special dominance: by the company’s logic, the simple existence of other similarly sized corporate behemoths establishes Facebook as an equal to others in its market.
Antitrust problems rise for Facebook if the market is legally defined in a way that shows it has dominance in terms of market share (i.e. the percentage of available consumers using its product or service). How a company itself views its market, who it thinks are its actual competitors, and where it sees the future challenges for its position are all relevant and useful evidence. After all, it is unlikely that Facebook’s internal communications reveal that Amazon’s dominance in e-commerce or Google’s dominance in search are things Facebook leaders consider to rival its dominance in social media. But the companies Facebook does treat as rivals (if it thinks they exist at all) would be illuminating to investigators.
Facebook’s Views on the Relationship Between Privacy and Competition
Facebook, just like the rest of the Big Tech companies, knows how valuable personal information is and likely sees a connection between keeping it in-house and denying potential competitors access.
From a competition framework, valuable finds in the document include how Facebook makes those value judgements, the rationale behind which data sharing arrangements the company does and does not engage in, and whether Facebook has a clear intent behind these decisions. All of these are important to the larger question of whether Facebook is actively leveraging its power to suppress competition.
It is worth noting, however, that depending on what is discovered in the days and weeks ahead, some of the problems presented by Facebook’s dominance may not be solvable under current antitrust laws but rather might have to depend on new competition policies. Nevertheless, clarity on the means by which Facebook suppresses that competition would be valuable insights to policymakers eager to inject competition into the social media market.