The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal is fast emerging as a watershed for our increasingly digitized society. For the first time, how to regulate personal data has become a mainstream public issue, so it’s important that we understand fully all the options available to us.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, they argue that it’s irresponsible and ultimately ineffective for people to #deletefacebook. On its own, this argument is overstated. The loss of even a small number of influential Facebook users (relatively wealthy, North Americans) is a signal to Facebook and governments about dissatisfaction with the status quo. That’s not a bad thing.
However, they’re also correct that a bunch of us deleting Facebook is an inadequate response to a systemic problem, so it’s worth following their logic to see where it takes us.
It turns out where it takes us is a pretty interesting place.
Seeing Facebook for what it is
As Slate’s April Glaser puts it, abandoning Facebook is a luxury because “for lots of people, leaving the service would be a self-harming act.”
For many people, Facebook has become a personal, professional and economic necessity: “Your business could have trouble reaching customers; your family might not gather on another social network; no one posts any events anywhere else.” For many users in poorer countries with bad internet connectivity, “Facebook is, in a sense, the whole internet,” Glaser writes.
These analysts call for, at a minimum, strong regulation of a problematic monopoly, but it’s not hard to push their argument even farther.
A chronically problematic organization whose demise would throw society into chaos is clearly not a normal business. Facebook, in short, has become a critical part of our infrastructure, and we should treat it as such.
It’s as if we’ve awoken to the realization that one person controls the world’s public squares. More to the point, the rules governing our public squares, including especially the collection and abuse of our personal data, are set by this one company.
While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims he’d like to “find a way to get our policies set in a way that reflects the values of the community so I am not the one making those decisions,” the truth is Facebook has been making these decisions all along.
It would be impossible not to. Somebody has to make these rules; the only question is who or what has the legitimacy and ability to reflect the views of a community.
A role for the state
Luckily, we have an institution with just those characteristics: The democratic state.
Social media platforms are natural monopolies. Facebook’s antics over the past decade have demonstrated the bad things that can happen when platforms run amok.
Given their central role in society, it’s irresponsible to give any one company or person the responsibility of effectively setting rules governing data and speech for our entire society. Social media has become a key part of our critical communications infrastructure.
In most countries outside the United States, allowing private, for-profit control of critical infrastructure like water and roads is highly controversial.
Public ownership is seen as delivering fairer, more equitable results in sectors where social stability is more important than a monopolist’s pursuit of profit.
If Facebook and social media are so central to so many people that #deletefacebook is anathema, it’s clear that social media platforms need to be treated like public roads, not private malls. This means we have to consider seriously whether Facebook should be placed under public ownership.
Government control not exactly popular
Nationalize Facebook? It’s a hard idea to take seriously: Government as a positive force has been out of favour since the 1980s.
But it’s worth remembering that in the last century, governments around the world responded to the arrival of new communication technologies by creating arm’s-length state broadcasters like the CBC — and the free-speech skies didn’t fall.
And it’s not like private enterprise is currently covering itself in glory.
There’s also the global angle to consider. Because Facebook and social media are global concerns, we might also consider whether it’s appropriate to leave the effective regulation of Facebook to the United States and the European Union when we all have so much at stake.
An international data-governance treaty, recognizing a country’s right to treat data flows and social media platforms as more than economic concerns, should be a matter of urgent debate. These issues are too important to leave to trade agreements like the TPP (the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).
American antipathy to nationalization of course means that the U.S. is unlikely to consider seriously Facebook’s nationalization. That said, we all need to take seriously the danger of continuing to treat personal data as just another good to trade, and Facebook as just another company.
Our societal well-being is too important to leave this problem to the whims of the market’s invisible hand.