Facebook’s Crypto Ad Ban Hurt Competition. Regulators Should Scrutinize It.
Earlier this year, I warned you about Big Tech’s crypto conspiracy—a movement by today’s Internet giants to strangle the virtual currency industry in its nascency. At the time, behemoths like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others were banning cryptocurrency-related advertising across their platforms. As I wrote then, “Whether Big Tech is conscious of the biases it possesses or not, there’s no denying the incumbents have an interest in smothering a would-be usurper in its crib.”
Now five months after becoming the first major player to squelch all crypto ads on its network, Facebook says it will begin to ease the moratorium. It’s about time.
When Facebook issued its initial injunction on January 30th, the company intimated it had enacted a temporary ban. “We will revisit this policy and how we enforce it as our signals improve,” said Rob Leathern, a Facebook product management director, in a blog post. Facebook claimed the supposed moral high ground, stating its draconian measure was designed to protect users from “financial products and services that are frequently associated with misleading or deceptive promotional practices.” (Pray tell, where was that conscience when the company accepted divisive, Russia-made political ads during the 2016 election?)
Leathern said in an update this week that Facebook has been able to “refine” its policies and create a path to publicity for “pre-approved advertisers….But we’ll listen to feedback, look at how well this policy works and continue to study this technology so that, if necessary, we can revise it over time.”
This all sounds very reasonable, sure. And yet—let’s look at what’s been going on inside Facebook in the meantime. The company has reshuffled its leadership, reassigning David Marcus, once head of messaging products, to helm a mysterious blockchain team. (The ex-president of PayPal is a director on the board of Coinbase, the biggest U.S. Bitcoin exchange, mind you.) Recent reports have even suggested that Facebook is exploring minting its own cryptocurrency. Hmm.
There’s no disputing that the fledgling crypto industry is filled with hucksters, con artists, and get-rich-quick scammers. But as David Pakman, an investor at the venture capital firm Venrock, told Fortune on a past episode of Balancing The Ledger, it seems “just a little bit too convenient for my taste” that Facebook, a massively centralized corporation, should put the kibosh on the one budding segment of the economy that might pose a legitimate threat to its supremacy. And now that Facebook is reportedly preparing an entree into the market, the company has, again quite conveniently, reversed its position.
Facebook’s drastic ban may very well have stemmed from a sincere attempt to combat fraud, but it would be naive to disregard how the company has benefited from its over-broad forbiddance. I’m inclined to side with Ted Livingston, CEO of the crypto-pivoted chat app Kik, who has often griped about Facebook’s proclivity to “copy and crush” upstart rivals. (Exhibit A: Snapchat, whose daily active user count has stagnated even as the value of Facebook’s Instagram has skyrocketed.) Facebook’s approach to crypto seems to be just another example of its ruthless business tactics.
Let us remember that Facebook’s ad ban came weeks after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he planned to “go deeper and study” cryptocurrency as part of his New Year’s resolution. Clearly, the company and its leadership have been thinking about crypto for some time, even as it pulled the rug out from underneath tender-footed opponents.
In an op-ed published by the Wall Street Journal this week, Mark Epstein, an antitrust attorney, argues that these were “dubious bans,” and he notes that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the ’50s that businesses cannot refuse to run ads to harm competitors. While the circumstances differ, today’s debacle echoes that earlier case; tech titans have used their privileged position to deny exposure to rivals. Poetically, this demonstrates the most compelling argument for decentralized, cryptocurrency-based platforms to exist in the first place.
Indeed, it would seem that Facebook, failing to secure a head-start in the crypto race, manufactured a healthy lead by kneecapping the competition, Tonya Harding-style.