Power to the people

Over the past few years, Facebook has become a public good and an important social resource. But as a company, it is behaving badly, and in the long term, that may cost it.

A survey during the northern spring found that almost half of Americans believed Facebook would 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: nationalising Facebook.

By ''nationalising Facebook'', I mean public ownership and at least a majority share at first. When nationalising 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 fulfil 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 now, the company violates everybody's privacy expectations, not to mention privacy laws.

Privacy watchdogs consistently complain that the company uses user data in ways they didn't agree to or anticipate. There are suspicions that the company creates shadow profiles of people who aren't even users but whose names get mentioned by people who are Facebook users.

Few of us fully understand Facebook's privacy policy, much less keep track of changes. People are sharing more personal information on Facebook than they think they are. And for every dozen Facebook users in the United States, one does not use privacy settings - either because that person doesn't care or doesn't know enough about how the privacy settings can be used.

It would be better to have a national privacy commissioner with real authority, some stringent privacy standards set at the federal level, and programs for making good use of some of the socially valuable data mining that firms like Facebook do. But in the US such sweeping innovations are probably too difficult to actually pull off, and nationalisation would almost get us there. Facebook would have to rise to First Amendment standards rather than their own terms of service. The company could be regulated the way public utilities often are.

With 80 per cent 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 colonisation. In its recent filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, 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 suddenly banning Palestinian pages at one point. Facebook communications are an important tool for democracy advocates, including those who helped organise 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 nationalised in the US, Facebook could be made to change its identity policy to allow democracy activists living in dictatorships to use pseudonyms.

While most global citizens treat Facebook as their social network infrastructure, the firm is greatly understaffed: It has about 4000 employees serving nearly 1 billion users. Facebook employees - at least those in it for the social good, rather than the bonuses - might even welcome the move to nationalise. Currently, Facebook employees are tasked with discovering marketable trends, selling advertising and doing data mining in the service of profit. Nationalising 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 analyse criminal networks in the US or terrorist networks around the world.

Even though the benefits outweigh the risks, the idea of nationalising Facebook is probably a nonstarter. At the very least, though, it is a great thought experiment and way of putting the privacy and data-mining issues front and centre. Forcing regulators - and the company itself - to think about the ways in which its organisational behaviour might serve the public interest should make it a better company. Facebook is now public infrastructure, and it should be treated as such.

Slate

Philip Howard is a professor of communication, information, and international studies at the University of Washington.

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