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Hey Facebook, lay off the little guy

Johnson City Press • Yesterday at 8:00 AM

Mark Zuckerberg is too young to remember Ma Bell, but he would do well to do a little reading. We suspect downtown Johnson City businessman Dick Nelson would be willing to help.

Ma Bell was the nickname for Bell Telephone Company, later AT&T, a massive conglomerate of affiliated companies that held a monopoly on telephone service for most of the country for the century after Alexander Graham Bell developed the technology in 1876. Bell controlled all aspects of the industry, including the devices themselves, leading to series of antitrust series of lawsuits and federal actions over decades. Finally in 1983, the U.S. Justice Department of Justice broke up Ma Bell, splitting her into what became known as regional Baby Bells, including what evolved into Verizon.

Now we have what we might as well call “Ma Facebook,” a company so pervasive that it affects most aspects of our communications and increasingly our spending habits. Zuckerberg’s 15-year-old creation is already as powerful as Ma Bell ever was — it claims 2.3 billion registered users around the world.

Because of Facebook’s unparalleled reach and addictive consumer habits on social media, businesses both large and small, including this newspaper, now use the social media platform as one way to reach customers.

That’s where Nelson enters the story. Facebook offers businesses the opportunity to place ads and “boost” their other posts — increasing how many people see their messages. As Staff Writer Zach Vance reported last week, Nelson often did so for his downtown coffee shop, Dos Gatos, but Facebook cut him off. When he sought explanation, Facebook simply told him it did not “support his business model” and would allow no further appeal. The ban was permanent and even crossed over to his other business, Nelson Fine Art.

Nelson ran afoul of Facebook’s policies by promoting cannabidiol oil products sold in Dos Gatos, despite the fact that such products are legal. In Tennessee, CBD products must come from hemp, not marijuana, and do not contain enough product to create a high. Nelson could not even get clarification on Facebook’s policies. The company did, however, respond to the Johnson City Press.

“When it comes to hemp and CBD specifically, we allow the advertisement of any non-ingestible hemp products without CBD,” a spokeswoman told Vance in an email. “Any products that contain ingestible hemp and/or CBD are not currently allowed, nor any products that are ingestible or allude to psychoactive effects.”

OK, so that’s the policy. Facebook certainly has the right to set its own standards, but those rules should be readily available to business owners like Nelson. And why ban everything Nelson sells? His entire ad account is indefinitely suspended. There’s just no logic or fairness in such an arbitrary, blanket decision.

Small businesses have a hard enough time surviving without such a dominant entity inhibiting them. Facebook’s near-monopoly on social media commerce is dangerous.

Zuckerberg already is facing Ma Bell-like scrutiny and with good reason. People learned just how invasive the technology could be when news broke last year that millions of users’ data had been harvested by a third party without their consent and used for political purposes. Despite promises in the wake of the scandal, Facebook continues to face concerns about lack of privacy, especially commercial use of its users’ information.

The day will come when regulators zoom in squarely on Zuckerberg and Facebook’s heavy-handed control over commerce and consumers, and it won’t take a century to ring that bell.

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