To quote Our Lady of Perpetual Reference: Were you here last year?
Facebook is now admitting to a staggering problem: for the time being, it’s just not going to reach its billion-user goal. Facebook executives, including Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg, have been making the rounds explaining the issue: for the past six months, the site has been absorbing an average of 3.5 million users a day. That’s about twice as many users as it once claimed it had, and a big increase over the 1.32 billion users it reported in October. “We’re growing and people are using Facebook at an all-time high,” COO Sheryl Sandberg told The Wall Street Journal in an interview. This is, needless to say, not just bad news for Facebook (though it has been a significant disappointment), but for Internet companies and governments. We’re all now in the unprecedented position of having to figure out how to coax people onto the Internet for any range of services, from global intranets to financial transactions. A while back, I cited various three-letter acronyms that cut across the services from which people were once required to jump through the wringer. I argued that there was one acronym that bore all of the rest: CTS. This stands for Carrier Selection System (as it’s billed by the providers that run it).
For the past 60 years, American citizens had to give the monopoly telephone companies the same sort of thorough “pick and choose” treatment it turns out we’re being forced to do with social media and e-commerce. In return for your so-called “general” telephone number, the phone company offered you the choice of the regional phone company from which you would be billed. But the phone companies dropped the ball when it came to managing this process and over the decades left half the country with unknown regional phone numbers.
When the Internet entered the scene in the late 1970s, users started to demand that e-commerce services and Internet service providers compete with each other for their business. (It was all that walk-up stuff outside electronics stores that got Amazon, right?) But the problem of confused area codes has endured for at least two decades, and in early 2016, the FCC, under the leadership of new Chairman Ajit Pai, took steps to finally eliminate the “dual-list” option where “customers can have an area code with more than one phone company.” The decision will be made in 2017, and is designed to help these confusing and local companies attract more phone service customers.
All of which raises some interesting questions. If this is now a problem for Facebook (and, more importantly, the product of that company’s choice), isn’t this an even bigger problem for the public, in general? If the companies that use the CTS can’t compete, aren’t we in dire straits?
I’m not nearly as sophisticated in putting geopolitics on the Internet. But I think of this as a problem with power. In some sense, the tech industry is in a territorial, market-based relationship with the cities and towns of the world. Uber’s funding relied on the strength of its international growth over its domestic market; Facebook has a formidable advantage in that it owns a dominant share of global marketshare. If it can’t tap into the Middle Eastern customer base of one of the established players, it has to try to spread itself geographically. Governments have a far smaller role, as it’s not in their interest to be involved in this sort of scheme. I find the CTS interesting because it points to how massive and influence-based this scene can be.
Another way of looking at it is a shift in control of power over online interactions away from governments and governments’ sponsored Internet companies. In particular, it suggests a tension between the power that governments can exert with the power that companies have by being the sole controllers of the Internet. The pressure on Facebook and other tech giants to make difficult trade-offs becomes much greater if there is a genuinely all-powerful force that can drive political decisions that rely on the diffusion of power. Once you change the rules, you also change the winner.