Research Notes

Why don’t people talk about Facebook when they discuss net neutrality?

– Read the story on how Facebook discriminates Telenor

Many are talking about net neutrality, and it’s high on the EU’s policymaking agenda. The debate about the open internet is important, but is one-sided. Supporters of net neutrality overlook the many instances of discrimination on the internet to focus exclusively on internet service providers (ISPs). They fail to mention the discrimination that occurs where people spend the overwhelming part of their time on the internet: Facebook. Indeed a large number of people think Facebook is the internet.

There are many ways to discriminate. There is an understanding that “the face of discrimination has many faces”. People can discriminate based on race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, class and so on. In the same way, the debate on net neutrality focuses exclusively on ISPs but forgets all the other players in the internet value chain that discriminate: platforms, operating systems, and devices.

Facebook is one of the most discriminatory actors of the web. It employs discrimination behind the scenes, and it can have a negative impact to individuals and companies. As the number of users has grown, Facebook needed a way to control its server costs. In practice, it shows only about 17% of your posts to your friends, and by the same token, you see only about 17% of the posts from your friends and the websites that you like. If you want better reach, you need to pay Facebook.

To be sure, users have some ability to customize their settings, but Facebook still needs to earn revenue by maximizing eyeballs to advertisements. As such it employs an algorithm to “throttle up” and “throttle down” the volume of certain posts. If Facebook thinks a post will drive a lot of traffic, it shows that post to more people. It if thinks the post is boring, it doesn’t distribute that post.

Make no mistake. There can be consequences to what Facebook deems is engaging or not. Consider the case of Telenor in Denmark. A banal complaint about the enrollment process on Telenor Denmark’s Facebook page gained 26,000 Likes in less than a day and thousands of comments. The incident was picked up by the press and mentioned in 20 articles online and on the TV news. Telenor was also profiled in a prime time TV show titled “Piles of Complaints About Telenor”. When the issue cooled down about a week after it started, more than 32,000 Likes for the complaint and more than 3500 comments were collected.

The Telenor customer made the complaint at the end of the working day when Telenor support staff finished their shift. Through the night, Facebook turned up the volume on the post showing it across users in Facebook Denmark, most were not even customers of Telenor or even friends of the user who made the post.

The next working day Telenor called the angry customer to resolve the issue. Not only did he get a refund, but Telenor refunded all the customers who had used that enrollment service–even though they hadn’t complained. Telenor posted their apologies on the Facebook page, but because of the way that Facebook folds posts underneath each other, Telenor’s response got lost in a sea of exchanges. Furthermore Facebook did not mail out the apology to all the people that follow Telenor or the thousands that liked and commented on the post, only to a small subset.

Maybe you say that Facebook is the way to get Telenor to admit its mistake. Fair enough, but there are injustices posted every day on Facebook that you will never see. Facebook is invested to drive traffic where it can sell advertising, and if it can stimulate engagement on corporate Facebook pages where companies will be coaxed to purchase services from Facebook to engage with their followers, so much the better.

If we applied the same net neutrality rules to Facebook as we to ISPs, it is likely that Facebook would be extinct by now. Imagine a world where your ISP exercised the same discrimination as Facebook, delivering only 17% of your emails. You wouldn’t know who got the messages and who didn’t. Imagine your ISP telling you that if you wanted to deliver the additional 83% of emails, that you would have to pay.

Traffic throttling is just one of the many kinds of discrimination that you face on Facebook. Another is that you can’t take your friends with you when you leave Facebook. Companies may have built up a significant following on Facebook with offline marketing, but Facebook won’t give the company full access to the followers unless they pay. Transparency on Facebook is another story all together, and not a pretty one.

The question is how would people and the political system respond if ISPs began discriminating like Facebook. There would likely be outrage and demands for net neutrality. The discrimination on Facebook exposes that the net neutrality rules are flawed because they ignore the discrimination that happens across the entire internet ecosystem: web platforms, operating systems, and devices. If we will have rules about discrimination, they should apply to all the providers on the web, not just operators. It makes no sense to outlaw discrimination in one part of the internet but to let is flourish on Facebook.

In the report “The good, the bad and the ugly side of Facebook – A report that describes how Facebook affects the mobile industry strategically, operationally and financially” Strand Consult recounts the Telenor experience on Facebook. The report details how Facebook discriminated against the Telenor by throttling up the complaint against the Telenor but throttling down the apology from Telenor in response. It’s time for politicians to look at the many internet players employing traffic discrimination and deliberately fighting against a free Internet.

Learn more about the report and the challenges that operators have with Facebook.

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