Three Reasons NOT to Nationalize Facebook
(And one reason that can be ruled out)
Let’s be honest, there is no real momentum around the idea that Facebook should be nationalized. The idea that one of the most powerful and valuable corporations in the world should be taken over and run by the government for the public good isn’t really catching fire.
But if it were, the case would go something like this:
• a vast store of data that can reveal everything from personality to society-level trends can’t be entrusted to a single power-hungry billionaire
• the innovations the company has created in the last several years haven’t really benefitted users, but rather have served to extend the corporation’s power
• granting the ability to manipulate our behaviour as a society on a mass scale to either the aforementioned billionaire or the highest bidder doesn’t seem like a great idea
For all these reasons, one could conclude that Facebook would be better run as a sort of public utility, subject to democratic regulations and in-depth oversight. There could be some real benefits. A Facebook platform run for the public good could deepen our involvement in democratic deliberations, focus our collective energies in sophisticated and positive ways, and even help us solve major crises like climate change.
However, it’s not too early to talk about some of the reasons why that might be a bad idea.
1. Military and Intelligence Agencies
For the forseeable future, the only government in a position to nationalize Facebook is that of the United States. We don’t have to reach back to CointelPro and the McCarthy Era to find reasons why handing over access to vast amounts of personal data is a bad idea. This is the same government that runs the NSA, the CIA, and several other agencies too secret to name.
This is serious stuff — intelligence agencies don’t just gather info. They also overthrow governments, start and stoke civil wars, and assassinate leaders.
Facebook and many Silicon Valley companies provide to various agencies de facto direct access to the private personal information of millions of people. So there’s a counterargument to this that says that if nationalized, Facebook would no longer be able to hide behind a veil of corporate secrecy and the relationship with intelligence and military agencies would have to be out in the open. That, in turn, would make it subject to a variety of potential reform campaigns.
However, one could counter that by saying that while domestic threats to privacy might be ultimately improved, the government would still use the platform to manipulate behaviour to its advantage on a global scale. A compelling argument, in light of the last century of US foreign policy.
A better solution than nationalizing, then, might be a splitting of Facebook into regional cooperatives with democratic governance (greatly facilitated by the platform itself) connected by open standards that maintain its ability to function as a global network. By reconstituting the social media giant as a federation of platform cooperatives, potential abuses of power could be curbed.
2. Data is dangerous, and not just when Facebook has it
The amount of data Facebook has on us is truly creepy. It goes beyond what we clicked on, where we went or talked to our friends about. The data gathered extends to the ability to draw conclusions about mental health, sexual orientation, voting tendencies and many other behaviours. That’s available to them (and tragically, to companies like Cambridge Analytica) because of the sheer amount of data we’re giving them — not just about likes, but about how quickly we’re scrolling, how often we log on, and so on.
Cambridge Analytica was predicated on a primitive form of extrapolations which could make fairly accurate predictions about personality based on analysis of a handful of page likes. Elsewhere, researchers have said that they can accurately predict — for example — whether someone is about to have a manic episode based on artificial intelligence-assisted analysis of data.
The point is that beyond legitimate privacy concerns we don’t want anyone knowing more about us than we know about ourselves, so the solution isn’t necessarily nationalizing Facebook, but rather strict regulation of how much data can be collected and how it is used.
3. FacebooKing for a day
Facebook, it is often said, “owns the social graph”. Which is to say, it has a certain kind of monopoly. Because it was able to dominate the social media space early and sign up more users than any other platform, it is the most useful platform to be on due to the network effect (or Metcalfe’s Law, if you prefer).
However, we’ve seen other dominant players in the same space rise and fall, like Friendster and Myspace. The argument could be made that Facebook has only been able to stay dominant by constantly tweaking its algorithms to increase the amount of time we spend on the site. They do this by using AI-assisted analysis and research on human psychology to maximize the addictiveness of their site. Because their business is run on advertising revenues, they have focused single-mindedly on extending the amount of time people spend on the site (even when they have reduced time on site, it’s arguably to keep it growing over the long term).
If Facebook were nationalized, however, that focus would necessarily change. The platform would be subject to decisions that might be based on social utility and not just maintaining dominance and making obscene profits. That might be positive in the short term, but in the medium to long term, it would make the platform vulnerable to challenges from other social media services willing to appeal directly to our brain stems, rendering Facebook a relatively boring backwater in short order.
A more realistic solution, then, would be to create a publicly- or cooperatively-administered data commons that would give users collective and individual control over how their data was used. So instead of rewarding the creation of addictive or monopolistic services with the gold bullion of the digital age — data — the data layer itself was managed in a transparent and secure way for everyone. Instead of giving the most valuable information in the world to first movers and venture capitalists, the data could be shared in explicit and limited ways with applications that are socially beneficial, and — for a price and with restrictions — with for-profit companies.
Commonsifying the data layer for all online apps would take control away from billionaires and Silicon Valley mega-twerps and put it back in the public domain.
4. Investors are job creators and innovators
In a capitalist economy, investors are an important source of innovation. If people or institutions invest lot of money into a company, and then the government takes control of that company, it discourages future innovation because the shareholders are denied the benefits of their investment.
Just kidding! That’s actually not true, because most innovation — the internet and most of Silicon Valley are prime examples — is heavily publicly financed while the profits are gobbled up by a tiny minority of avaricious and arrogant morally stunted bros. The proceeds are then stored in offshore accounts and spent on giant yachts and large-scale manipulation of the political system to entrench the power this same minority.
Investors who knew they were going to make a buck destroying journalism as we know it while using advanced techniques of psychological manipulation to corral millions of people into echo chambers of their own preferred realities in the name of increasing their time on site and advertising revenues: losing their investments is the least that they deserve.
For those who didn’t know what they were doing, gambling with the market is a risky business!