Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on Thursday that the company will change the brand to Meta, focusing on the “meta universe” (the concept of a new virtual space focused on virtual spaces) and virtual reality products. Apart from all the jokes about “metadata” and “metastatic damage”, this rebranding step should not distract from the very real problems that Facebook could not solve.
We can hardly trust technology platforms with the Internet. Of course, we can’t trust them with virtual reality.
Critics may argue that Facebook’s rebranding is happening at a convenient time. Some may even assume that time easily deviates from the weeks of negative media that surround the social media giant. Facebook has been the subject of more controversy in recent times: whistleblower reports have raised concerns, including online harassment, child safety issues and even threats to democracy. The new name and the new corporate structure can help repel some negative associations in the press and negative associations that may arise in the public with the troubled social media company.
But the damage is deep. Francis Haugen, a former Facebook employee who became an informant, testified at a Senate hearing that she said her former company did not protect children and adolescents online. Haugen also worked with the Wall Street Journal, which published Facebook Files, a revelation that shocked the world. Recently, a consortium of journalists across the country received hundreds of other documents that reported even more negative stories about Facebook.
Whatever it is called, the company formerly known as Facebook has many problems that it has to solve. But this name change signals that it will not be able to solve them, and in fact may not want to do the work needed to find solutions.
Will people give up Facebook now that we know what we know? Maybe it’s time to introduce post-Facebook and post-Meta Internet. We need to think about how to create an environment that will allow small startups and nonprofits to develop meaningful alternatives to Facebook, increase competition, which in turn will force large technology companies to also improve the user experience.
If Meta rebranding is a way for Facebook to really turn away from social media and move completely to virtual reality, it’s even worse. We can hardly trust technology platforms with the Internet. Of course, we can’t trust them with virtual reality. By increasing the use of virtual reality and augmented reality technology, we are blurring the line between cyberspace and physical space.
Imagine that online pursuers are yelling at you during the day, wherever you are, whether your phone or computer is turned on. Imagine a company like Meta that has decided to block you from accessing the virtual reality space, just as Facebook can block you from using its website and program. The law is simply not ready to regulate these problems, and technology companies have not established themselves as reliable managers of the new virtual reality.
The law is simply not ready to regulate these problems, and technology companies have not established themselves as reliable managers of the new virtual reality.
Meta’s product range – including Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus – accounts for a significant share of the modern Internet. But these are not the only technology platforms with problems that can affect society as a whole. Although Facebook is heavily screened by the public and regulators, much less attention is paid to platforms such as YouTube, Snapchat and TikTok (although all three were presented at Senate hearings earlier this week). Each technology platform faces problems with online broadcasting, privacy and misinformation. No platform has solved these problems perfectly, and every company needs to work better.
Facebook is not alone in its inability to protect users. He is not even alone in rebranding. In 2015, Google restructured its organization and became Alphabet. Like Facebook’s rebranding, Google’s restructuring could have been politically motivated. With a new organizational structure that clearly delineated different product sectors, Google may have tried to avoid antitrust, a concern that is likely shared by Facebook, which has also faced antitrust pressure.
Lawmakers and regulators must act now to protect us from the harm of current Internet platforms and the future of virtual reality. Companies should not be able to avoid antitrust pressure through simple rebranding, and they certainly should not be able to avoid liability for damages online simply by changing the name. The recently renewed Federal Trade Commission, headed by FTC chairwoman Lina Hahn, must enforce consumer protection and competition laws against Facebook and other major technology companies that do not meet current regulatory standards.
Policymakers seeking to contain large technologies must also be careful not to harm small startups and nonprofits in the process, both in order to maintain a competitive technology market and to protect the living and open Internet. It may be time to think about what the public Internet will look like and how governments will be able to offer some online services to the public as an alternative to private technology platforms.
We don’t live in a metacosm yet, but it’s disturbing to think that any of us will end up living in a world that is completely controlled by a poorly regulated technology company like Facebook (or Meta). We need the best laws for the Internet as we know them, but we also need laws that can protect us if and when virtual reality becomes a real, tangible part of our lives. If we want to keep up with virtual reality, the top priority is to update our current laws on privacy and harm on the Internet.