The Ingram Christmas letter, in which we say goodbye and good riddance to 2020

Every year when I write our Christmas letter, I’m aware of how much it seems like bragging: Oh yes, here are our photos from Venice or Florence or the Amalfi Coast, and here are pictures of our brilliant and beautiful children, and Becky and I looking happy and prosperous. Isn’t our life wonderful and idyllic? This year, of course, there wasn’t any of that. Not only was there no trip to Italy, but there were virtually no trips anywhere to speak of, apart from a journey to Florida in March, just as the terrible reality of COVID-19 was starting to hit (here’s a link to a blog post I’ve been updating periodically since the pandemic began). To be honest, even writing the words “there was no trip to Italy” sounds ridiculous, like I’m a prince of some nameless country whose citizens are all dying of the plague, and I’m complaining that I can’t go stag hunting because of the quarantine. Any lingering sadness about not being able to see Italy in the spring was quickly overtaken by gratitude that we were all healthy. Memories of all the lovely churches in Italy were replaced with images of them filling up with coffins because people were dying faster than they could be buried.

The trips that we did make this year, to see friends and family, or to move Becky’s mom out of her condo after the death of her husband Ron, were fraught with anxiety: Should we go inside? Will everyone be wearing masks, or do some not want to do that, and if so then what do we do? How long do we stay? Can we eat outside, and if not, then what? Should we wash all the food with hand soap, and all the door handles, and the boxes and bags everything came in? This year was like trying to navigate a ship through iceberg-infested waters, except all the icebergs were invisible and the throttle was stuck wide open, and everyone was blindfolded. Every day, there was a terrible new milestone: A record number of cases, a record number of deaths, a record shortage of ICU beds. Amid all this, we have been very lucky: we moved out of Toronto last year, and are sharing a large house (really two houses put together) just north of Peterborough. We have about a hundred acres of fields and forest to wander around in, and friends next door to have dinners with. We can go months without going anywhere, other than the odd trip to the grocery store (and the liquor store, of course).

I’ve been reading a series of newsletter entries over the past few months called “The Last Normal Day,” and it got me thinking about our last normal day, sometime in early March. Becky and I went to Florida with her brother Dave and his wife Jennifer, where we had rented a condo complex near Siesta Key. When we flew down, there were warnings about washing your hands so as not to get this new flu, etc., but it seemed like mostly a nuisance. With each passing day, however, it got more real, and more frightening. One day we were kayaking through the mangroves, and the next we were frantically trying to book new return flights for Becky’s mom and stepfather because Canada was closing the border. Our last meal there, we joked half-heartedly about taking a photo with empty tables beside us, so our daughter Caitlin and her husband Wade (both of whom are nurses), wouldn’t be mad at us for breaching COVID rules. And then not long after we came back, Meaghan had to take our cat Shadow to the vet, and we all got on a video call as she passed away in Meaghan’s arms (little did we know that most of 2020 would be spent on video calls).

Continue reading “The Ingram Christmas letter, in which we say goodbye and good riddance to 2020”

Facebook and antitrust: A slam-dunk case, or a decades-long fight in the making?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

It’s not surprising that the announcement last week of an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook has gotten a lot of media attention. Not only is Facebook a company that virtually everyone uses or at least knows about, but mammoth cases like this one (which involves the Federal Trade Commission and 46 states) are extremely rare. There have only been half a dozen or so of this magnitude in the last 50 years, and only the Microsoft case from the late 1990s and possibly the AT&T breakup even come close to this one in size and impact. But once the fanfare of the announcement cools down, the history of such cases shows that what almost inevitably happens is not a swift victory for justice (however one might define that term) but rather a seemingly never-ending period — years, and in some cases decades — of protracted legal wrangling, a process that is almost mind-numbingly boring for most people, satisfying no one apart from the legions of corporate lawyers and academics for whom it provides something close to full employment. And the ending is likely to be a carefully negotiated settlement.

Even more than Microsoft, this case in particular is complicated by the fact that antitrust law was designed as a weapon to go after railroads and oil magnates who controlled access to physical goods with obvious market value, not a corporation whose product costs nothing and yet is used daily by billions of people. On top of that, the last several decades of antitrust court decisions have cemented the idea that the main target of antitrust law is consumer harm, which is traditionally defined as either high prices or the restriction of choice, or both. The former makes no sense in the context of Facebook, and even the latter is a stretch. The FTC’s argument is that harm should be broadly defined to mean a lack of privacy, the sharing of personal data, etc., but that is likely to be an uphill climb. Not that it isn’t true, but the concept has not been established yet in a legal sense, and courts may be skeptical of it (it was initially advanced by legal scholar Dina Srinivasan in a paper titled “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook”). And the question of whether Facebook has prevented users from exercising freedom of choice also requires the FTC and the states to jump through some large hoops in order to make that case.

The complaint argues that Facebook has a monopoly over a specific market, which it defines as “personal social networking,” i.e. the sharing of information with family and friends. But there is no consensus on whether that is even a discrete market, let alone whether Facebook controls enough of it to matter in a legal sense. A court could decide that TikTok is fundamentally in the same market, or Snapchat for that matter, and between them they have almost half a billion users and significant market strength. And if Facebook doesn’t control a monopoly on anything, then the anti-competitive behavior it has engaged in (of buying Instagram and WhatsApp for example) just becomes the normal kind of competitive behavior that all large technology companies engage in. We may all believe and understand that Facebook is huge and powerful, but that’s not enough to meet the antitrust test — the FTC has to show that it became that way illegally, and/or maintains that position through illegal means.

Continue reading “Facebook and antitrust: A slam-dunk case, or a decades-long fight in the making?”

Facebook’s Supreme Court starts to hear its first cases

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Almost three years ago, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg floated what seemed like a bizarre idea: that the massive, multibillion-dollar corporation he co-founded might create a kind of Supreme Court, which would hear cases involving questionable moderation decisions made by the company. And despite much scoffing and skepticism from Facebook’s critics over the ensuing years, Zuckerberg has done exactly that, setting up a theoretically independent body known as the Facebook Oversight Board, with a charter that prevents the company from meddling in its decisions, and requires Zuckerberg and Facebook to implement any recommendations the board makes, provided they aren’t against the law. Even after the group was created, however, it took some time before it could actually hear cases, for a variety of technical reasons: for example, the company said the board needed specially-equipped laptops so that personal information about users didn’t get exposed to public view. This week, the board finally started doing its work, and the response shows that there is still a lot of skepticism out there about Facebook’s big idea.

Many of those who see the social network as contributing to the problems of political disinformation were hopeful the Oversight Board might be up and running in time for the US presidential election, so it could rule on things like Facebook’s decision not to remove voter-fraud allegations and other conspiracy theories posted by Donald Trump and his followers. Instead, the board’s first cases include:

  • A screenshot of tweets by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, in which he wrote that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”
  • Photos of a dead child, fully clothed, with text in Burmese asking why there was no retaliation against China for its treatment of Uighur Muslims
  • Alleged historical photos of churches in Baku, Azerbaijan, with text saying that Baku had been built by Armenians and asking where the churches had gone
  • Eight photographs on Instagram which included female breasts and nipples, with text in Portuguese about breast cancer symptoms
  • An alleged quote by Nazi Germany’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels
  • A video about France’s refusal to authorize hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin as treatments for COVID-19

The board said it got more than 20,000 suggestions for incidents that users wanted it to review since October 2020, which gives some indication of just how difficult the job of running Facebook’s Supreme Court will likely be, considering the vast quantities of content that are posted to the social network every day. The board has invited the public to comment on the cases (which have had any personal identifying information removed) over the next week. If it opts to overrule Facebook’s earlier decisions, the company must comply with that ruling, and must also publicly respond to the board. “Facebook has to follow our decision. And that means if they have taken content down, they have to put it back up. But they also have to use this as a guideline for other similar cases,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Prime Minister of Denmark and an Oversight Board member.

Continue reading “Facebook’s Supreme Court starts to hear its first cases”