Hey, Let’s Not Nationalize Facebook
There are dumb ideas…and then there are really dumb ideas. And then there are, so to say, Congressional politicians. We’re not quite at that level yet, but it seems like it. I am of course, referring to a rather silly piece in Slate magazine titled “Let’s Nationalize Facebook,” written by one Phillip N. Howard, a professor of communications and information technology from the University of Washington. His reasons for doing so are:
Over the last several years, Facebook has become a public good and an important social resource. But as a company, it is behaving badly, and long term, that may cost it: A spring survey found that almost half of Americans believe that Facebook will eventually fade away. Even the business side has been a bit of a disaster lately, with earnings lower than expected and the news that a significant portion of Facebook profiles are fake. If neither users nor investors can be confident in the company, it’s time we start discussing an idea that might seem crazy: nationalizing Facebook.
By “nationalizing Facebook,” I mean public ownership and at least a majority share at first. When nationalizing the company restores the public trust, that controlling interest could be reduced. There are three very good reasons for this drastic step: It could fix the company’s woeful privacy practices, allow the social network to fulfill its true potential for providing social good, and force it to put its valuable data to work on significant social problems.
Let’s start with privacy.
Right. Let’s. Let’s start with turning over a social network used by hundreds of millions of people around the globe to “public ownership,” which invariably means it will be run in some fashion by the United States government. So let’s turn over everyone’s private records to an institution that has illegally wiretapped American citizens, in fact going as far as violating the Constitution, is constantly pulling data on American cellphone users, and let us not forget, wants to look at you naked. And that’s just from the first page of Julian Sanchez’s posts over at the Cato Institute blog. Looking at TechLiberation, TechDirt, or the Electronic Frontier Foundation would undoubtably turn up dozens of more egregious examples of civil liberties and privacy violations by the US government. It’s as if Professor Howards has conveniently forgotten about the PATRIOT Act.
Most of his other arguments about privacy are less nonsensical than that, but are still stupid. For example, his fear about companies collecting your data on Facebook. Well, guess what, if you don’t want them to collect your Facebook data, then don’t $&*%*@&$ put that data on Facebook, you colossal imbecilic morons. It’s as simple as that. All the companies are doing is taking information that you yourself provided and putting it into a matrix to know what to sell you. That’s not violating privacy, that’s using public information. And you know what? If you sign up to Facebook and still put everything up behind a privacy wall (as I’ve done), you’re still putting information on their servers, which they own. So it still falls to you to hey, think about what you’re putting on there.
Oh, and a “national privacy commissioner?” Yeah, we tried that and it didn’t work. What makes you think a commissioner will work? The record of effective policy czars in various—oh, wait, none of them have worked out either. Or do you call the Drug War a success?
On to his second point, “social good” (whatever the frell that is):
With 80 percent of market share, Facebook is already a monopoly, and being publicly traded hasn’t made it more socially responsible. The map of its global market dominance is impressive, though some might say this is a map of colonization. In its recent SEC filing, Facebook declared its goal of connecting all Internet users. The company actually wants to be public information infrastructure, and to that end its tools have been used for a lot of good, like encouraging organ donations and helping activists build social movements in countries run by tough dictators.
But Facebook can also make mistakes with political consequences. The company has come under fire for missteps like prohibiting photos of women breast-feeding and suddenlybanning “Palestinian” pages at one point. Facebook communications are an important tool for democracy advocates, including those who helped organize the Arab Spring. Yet the user policy of requiring that democratic activists in authoritarian regimes maintain “real” profiles puts activist leaders at risk. And dictators have figured out how they can use Facebook to monitor activist networks and entrap democracy advocates.
But since the security services in Syria, Iran, and China now use Facebook to monitor and entrap activists, public trust in Facebook may be misplaced. Rather than allow Facebook to serve authoritarian interests, if nationalized in the United States, we could make Facebook change its identity policy to allow democracy activists living in dictatorships to use pseudonyms.
I see his point here, and I agree to an extent. It would be nice to allow certain individuals to use pseudonyms. Except…they already can. I have met people who literally have their Facebook profile set to Goku, from Dragonball Z (that’s a Japanese cartoon, in case you’re wondering.) Or people who have their name set to “Straightedge,” or something similar. So you can get around it.
And again, let’s hand all these democracy activists’ personal data over to Uncle Sam. You know, the same Uncle Sam who supplied weapons to the regime in Egypt, both before and after the revolt, and are being used to commit humans rights violations? That same Uncle Sam? An Uncle Sam that really isn’t all that much better than Syria, Iran, and China? I really think that Professor Howard here hasn’t thought this through—at all. He’s done maybe the first third of the thinking, but hasn’t followed up to examine the consequences of his first thoughts.
And, then, lastly, putting that data to work on social problems:
While most U.S. citizens and most global citizens treat Facebook as their social network infrastructure, the firm is greatly understaffed: It has about 4,000 employees serving nearly 1 billion users. Facebook staffers—at least those in it for the social good, rather than the bonuses—might even welcome the move to nationalize. Currently, Facebook employees are tasked with discovering marketable trends, selling advertising, and doing data mining in the service of profit. Nationalizing Facebook would allow more resources to go into data mining for public health and social research.
Many academics are finding that big social network data sets can generate surprising and valuable information for addressing social problems—for instance, public health and national security. Researchers are working on ways to use social networking patterns to predict the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We could even use Facebook data to analyze criminal networks in the United States or terrorist networks around the world. We’d want to be careful about the circumstances under which our security services had access to Facebook data, but if the firm had been nationalized, at least there could be some reasonable public oversight. And while academics have to meet ethical standards for protecting the people they study, Facebook has no such guidelines. Nationalization could allow us to review the ethical implications of their management decisions.
Facebook’s data harvesting could be used to improve public policy, yet scholars rarely find the company willing to collaborate on important research questions. Sometimes different scientists unknowingly buy access to the same data, and then duplicate efforts to clean the data for real analysis. A publicly accessible, central way of sharing data would allow better access for social and public health researchers. Or even better, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health could help manage a clearinghouse for data so that we can all be sure it is properly anonymized and research effort is not wasted. There would be economic benefits, too: As the venerable Economist magazine has argued, making large amounts of public data widely available stimulates creative new businesses ventures.
So let me get this straight. For-profit companies taking the data that’s on Facebook and using it to develop advertising campaigns: bad. Academics taking the data that’s on Facebook and using it for their research: wonderful. But aren’t we still seeing a privacy problem here, at least from Howard’s view? Oh, and again, “reasonable public oversight.” Right. The same kind of reasonable public oversight that’s kept the TSA from patting our balls and the NSA from snooping in our files—the kind that doesn’t exist.
I actually don’t like to say this in public posts, because it feels more like an ad hominem attack more than anything, but here I feel it is entirely justified: Howard is a colossal, monumental, mono-synaptic idiot. I honestly do not believe this man has considered what he has been saying, and has somehow forgotten the entirety of the “Naughties,” 2000-2010, when between George W. Bush and Barack Obama we got all sorts of civil rights issues, including drones, Gitmo, the PATRIOT Act, the TSA, domestic spying, the NDAA, the Drug War, and on and on ad nauseum. Did Howard crash a plane into a glacier in 1999 and only get thawed six months ago? No, that couldn’t have happened—if he got thawed six months ago, he would probably wisened up by now and realized what the hell was going on with our “security services.”
How a man who failed to think through any of his ideas got hired by a major university should be a mystery—though, regrettably, more and more we’re seeing our academia becoming less and less intelligent and more and more caught up in its own fantasies and backslapping.
There are other considerations too. Facebook is not a strictly American phenomenon. In fact, there are more users in Europe than North America. How the devil does Howard think we’re going to nationalize a company in one nation that is spread out around the world? Does he really think that users in other nations are going to like that? Or maybe he thinks that Facebook can become something like the UN? Yes, because the UN is something to be emulated, that big organization in New York that lets crazed dictators speak and utterly fails to actually stand up for genuine civil rights around the globe. That UN. Have you ever seen a more useless institution?
And then there’s the simple fact that Facebook is not a public utility. It is not a moral right. It is a service, offered free of charge by a company, but it is not a utility. It may be painful to think of it, but yes, you can switch to a different service. I already use Twitter more than I use Facebook (no matter what Klout thinks.) There’s also Google+, or Pinterest (eww) or any number of alternatives. Facebook has done well because it has pleased the consumers, but many are rethinking that, and I am sure many would leave if it were nationalized. No more data. Well, no more new data, at any rate. Nationalizing Facebook makes about as much sense as…well, nationalizing anything short of national defense, really. So automatically it is a stupid idea.
I’m going to close out with a bit from Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, who has this wonderful bit on the professor’s idiocy:
“If only we elected the right people,” our friends on the left seem to think, “things would be better. If only our elected officials dedicated their lives to careful balancing of our precious American values, if we got a real regulator in there, if only they didn’t come under outside pressure…” If only, if only, if only.
It is quite conceivable to have some wise and neutral authority make better decisions about how every organ of society might operate. I think this dream is what brings our friends on the left to believe so strongly in increasing government control over society.
The thing is, it is quite impossible for that wise and neutral authority ever to exist.
We can go to the aphorisms—”Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”; we can go to school: the public choice school of economics, specifically; or we can go to the lessons of history to show that there is not a beneficent government in the kitchen, lovingly brewing coffee for you, when you wake from your ‘democratic’ dream.
You know me—I’m not an anarchist. But I am definitely not going to give the federal government this sort of power. They don’t do need it and don’t deserve it.