FacePalm? The proposal to “nationalize” Facebook
Internet privacy is the new virginity- people love to lecture about it in an irritating and/or pompous manner that undermines reasonable advice about the issue. Facebook is the suave bad boy who everyone bemoans, but for some reason, sleeps with anyway. Last week, Princeton professor Phillip N. Howard wrote an article for Slate advocating the “nationalization” of Facebook in order to regulate its privacy policies and maximize its social utility. By “nationalization”, Howard means “public ownership and at least a majority share at first,” reducing public control if Facebook complies with certain standards of privacy protection. Even Howard admits that the idea is “probably a nonstarter”, though it is rather forward-thinking; social media usage is pretty much a given for our generation, and our children will not be able to write sentences longer than 140 characters. Regardless, there is always a trade-off: the potential for social welfare does not always justify state intervention.
Professor Howard’s claim that Facebook is a public good, similar to public transportation, is at best a prediction for the future. His proposal is similar to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to ban sales of soda sizes larger than 16 oz to fight obesity. While the project is clearly well-meaning, and could even have positive effects, it’s a patronizing move that takes a vague poke at a symptom rather than the root of the problem: poor decision making and ignorance about what constitutes a healthy diet. Facebook’s privacy settings and policies, while needlessly veiled, do not take special knowledge to figure out. There’s a reason we have an FDA, for example: food and drug regulation is not something the average person has the expertise to navigate.
Why doesn’t Facebook take of this themselves? Probably because 900 million people or people-like entities use Facebook anyway, despite grumbling over abstruse privacy settings. Social action, such as mass boycotting (unfortunately, 900 million is three times the population of the United States, and this is one protest that cannot be organized via Facebook), might do something; people and businesses alike respond to incentives.
As it is, the face of social media is changing constantly (all that’s left of Myspace is a few awkward mirror pics), and Facebook’s IPO status doesn’t ensure that it’ll be extant in a decade – the stock is doing poorly enough that Facebook director Peter Thiel recently sold a majority of his shares. There’s no need to fossilize Facebook by giving a majority share to the government; it’s making the unwarranted assumption that we’ll still be posting drunk photos of ourselves on Facebook in the age of flying cars and spandex jumpsuits. Doubtless, laws about privacy protection will become more sophisticated—until then, the public should either use Facebook wisely or refrain altogether.
Howard’s more seductive argument for nationalization has to do with the possible benefits to public policy; for example, researchers at the University of North Carolina are working on ways to track the spread of syphilis using networking patterns. However, Facebook is often unwilling to share its stores of helpful data with scholars. Interesting idea, that; we could also install cameras in all bedrooms and capitol hill bathrooms to ensure condom utilization. No type of freedom or privacy is absolute, but allowing Facebook to remain “un-nationalized” does not constitute a threat to public safety or otherwise justify doing something so radical. A publicly owned competitor could be created; it might as well be called “FascistBook” because so few people would use it. Facebook should cooperate with public health officials the same way all should do community service; there is a possible moral obligation, but not something that should be legislated, both for practical and more abstract reasons. Freedom is a word that is thrown around a lot, particularly by opinion columnists, but
We’re going through a period of technological adjustment-eventually, classes in Facebook privacy policies, Tweeting, and general online prudence will be as ubiquitous as typing. In the meantime, Facebook ought to elucidate their privacy settings and cooperate with public health officials, the same way that suave bad boys should be up front with how many girls they’re currently juggling. This just isn’t under government purview; eventually, using internet privacy settings properly will be common sense, like not writing your address on bathroom stalls in East St. Louis. As for the possible benefits for public policy, I am almost convinced. Seductive as the potential to predict the spread of disease is, we live in a world where trade-offs are necessary. Forcing Facebook to “nationalize” would be a classic slippery slope.