Has Facebook become such a critical and integral part of so many lives that it should be taken out of the control of the private and corporate worlds and become ‘nationalized’? That’s the view of one eminent academic who feels it is behaving badly as a company, has lost the trust of investors but has actually become a public good, and should perhaps be treated as such.
This sort of radical thinking may generate fears of socialistic tendencies but the exponent of the concept, Philip N. Howard a professor of communication, information, and international studies at the University of Washington, doesn’t come across as anything but sensible in his diagnosis. He bases his idea on a recent survey that found almost half of Americans believed Facebook would eventually fade away and the fact that investors have been less than enamoured low earnings and the discovery that a significant portion of Facebook profiles were fake.
By ‘nationalizing Facebook’ Howard means making it publicly owned, with 80 per cent market share in North America and explosive international penetration, likened by some to a type of digital colonization, Facebook and the data it holds take it beyond the level of a corporation or business. To be fair, Google should also be included if those are the main criteria.
Howard’s fears mirror those of this writer in previous tomes, especially with regard to privacy, data violation and social manipulation. He says that the company currently violates everybody’s privacy expectations, not to mention privacy laws, by using user data in ways they didn’t agree to or anticipate. No surprises there, but suspicions that the company creates shadow profiles of people who aren’t even users but whose names get mentioned on Facebook, is surprising, albeit difficult to prove.
The massive amount of data being collected for ‘marketing’ purposes could be better used to 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.”
Facebook has also become ‘the weapon of choice’ for some to disseminate political propaganda and rally the masses against injustice, but just as frightening is its use by security services in Syria, Iran and China that allegedly use Facebook to monitor and entrap activists. Even the US government has subpoenaed Facebook for information on individuals it was investigating. Howard suggest that “we could even use Facebook data to analyse criminal networks in the US or terrorist networks around the world.”
That’s where the theory of ‘nationalizing’ starts to be a worry. Right now, the concept that a corporation and, up until recently, an individual can have control of this incredibly powerful tool, is rather terrifying. However, the thought of any one government having the same power is equally scary, especially when we review the abuses that came out of the US Patriot Act, for example, where the rights of individuals can be extinguished under the guise of implied terrorism.
So, who would control a ‘nationalized’ Facebook? Would it be a publicly owned entity that votes for a management team, would it be free of political or government interference and what national and international laws would it be administered under? Maybe it should come under the charter of the United Nations? None of these seem particularly doable, let alone palatable. In fact, the lack of adequate laws pertaining specifically to social networks is a bit weird in itself.
It seems that the social networking revolution has happened so quickly that lawmakers have simply been caught with their pants down. Any attempt to control it usually draws on other laws that were created well before the internet age and simply do not work.
Where does that leave Facebook, its users and those governments fearing the immense power it now wields, as in the recent Arab Spring events? Regardless of how Facebook ends up, its success or demise will be supplanted by any number of similar, if less universal social networking options. As quickly as the public or the authorities deem one no longer viable, another will surely take its place – nationalized or not.