Google and Facebook: When humans are the fuel for social media farms

For several weeks, social media firms Facebook, Google, and Twitter have faced scrutiny from media and Congress over their alleged facilitation of Russian messaging during the 2016 presidential elections. Nitasha Tiku shared last month in an article for WIRED how social media companies have been catching heat from both sides of the aisle for allowing Russia-based or backed entities to buy ads on their platforms and direct subscribers to messages designed to misinform, mislead, or otherwise influence readers.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter are leaders in the “attention economy“, where social media companies buy (more like hack), package, and sell the attention they glean from their subscribers. Keeping your attention is their business, keeping it in sufficient quantities to attract advertisers who wish to market product to you. Attention, not information, is in short supply. That is the true gold nugget.

Congress, while not having yet passed any significant legislation, is still scrutinizing how social media companies manipulate consumer behavior. For example, today the U.S. House energy and commerce committee has a hearing on how companies use algorithms when making decisions on consumer behavior. This should provide some insight on where Congress wants to go next on the issue.

Some clarity on what net neutrality is

The Twitter-verse is going bonkers over today’s report that the Federal Communications Commission is considering getting rid of net neutrality.  That view is erroneous. The concept or principle of net neutrality is not being abandoned. What Chairman Pai is proposing is that the FCC stop applying the telecommunications rules found in Title II of the Communications Act to enforce net neutrality.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, internet protocol was being introduced into phone networks. Also, new local phone entrants such as cable companies and local network bypass companies were bringing new services into local markets. The issue was, how do we bill for the exchange of traffic ie data and voice traffic in such a way as to encourage competition. Regulators decided to lightly regulate the agreements that these companies entered into to exchange traffic. Some companies decided to exercise what was once called “bill and keep.” In other words, they wouldn’t bill each other for the exchange of traffic.

Over past 25 years, this traffic has increased. Phone networks needed the additional revenue to invest in networks that could keep up with traffic as well as compete with bypass providers like cable companies. Also, content providers and search engines were developing and spawning more traffic. Net neutrality grew out of this. In short, it has never been about democracy for the consumer. That’s a bullshit argument that a strategic communications expert made up in order to generate support from regulators to keep the exchange of traffic between the Googles and the Verizons low to non-existent.

The consumer is being used if you will as an excuse. Rates are going to stay where they are. The real issue is, smaller content providers who can’t pay broadband companies or content delivery companies the fees to move their traffic will fall to the wayside.

Consumers are being duped by Facebook and Google into supporting their argument for net neutrality. It is ironic that those companies use the “open internet” concept to design apps that spy on you….

How does regulating Facebook optimize returns on resources?

Farhad Manjoo writing for The New York Times argued in a recent article for increased regulation of “The Frightful Five”; Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft. For Mr Manjoo, their increasing intrusion into personal privacy and growth in the retail sector market should raise concerns on the part of regulators.

My takeaway from Mr Manjoo’s article is that government is moving further and further away from the opportunity of being simply a fair allocator of capital to oppressively regulating its distribution to the point where growth in the value of capital is squashed.

In addition, the Frightful Five have no monopoly on natural resources. They do not control land or access to air or minerals. As demand grows for internet services so too does demand grow for electricity use of the part of internet companies. In an article for Forbes.com, Christopher Helman estimates that internet firms account for 1.8% of electricity consumed in the United States. On an annual basis, internet companies are spending $7 billion a year to consume 70 billion kilowatt hours per year of electricity.

And given their two percent contribution to total greenhouse gas emissions, companies like Google have been purchasing energy from renewable energy sources with a 2017 goal of going 100% renewable, according to a piece by Adam Vaughan for The Guardian.com. As a consumer, Google and other internet companies aren’t in the energy extracting and generation business, making them susceptible, like any other consumer, to the whims of energy companies that actually have a license to extract, generate, and distribute energy.

In terms of human resources they higher relatively few people compared to other large companies in different sectors. The data processing, hosting, and related services sub-sector, within which companies like the Frightful Five belong, employed 364,000 people in September 2017, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This total represents approximately .23% of the approximately 156 million people employed in the United States.

What the Frightful Five are first and foremost are tax revenue generators. While not responsible for extracting and managing the United States’ natural resources, by employing 364,000 wage earners and providing platforms for the sale of goods and services including advertisement, internet companies are providing a tax revenue stream for the United States government that didn’t exist twenty years ago.

How much in taxes would the United States be willing to forego by regulating the profit centers of internet companies? For example, in 2016, Alphabet, the parent of Google, had tax expenses of $4.7 billion at a tax rate of 19%, while Microsoft posted tax expenses of $3.3 billion at a tax rate of 16.5%. Apple paid $15.8 billion in taxes at a tax rate of 25.8%.

As Congress considers a corporate tax overhaul and the impact reform may have on its coffers and the deficit, does Washington want to risk reducing the tax revenues that keep its bond holders calm?

Rather, a better scenario for bond holders would be for government not to interfere in the Frightful Five’s ability to generate taxable income. Since internet companies do not manage directly the United States’ natural resources via extraction or distribution, there should be less reason for regulating these entities.