CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom — In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg solemnly pledged to safeguard user data. “And if we cant then we dont deserve to serve you.”
Last month, when 50 million accounts were hacked, Zuckerberg failed his own test. Curiously, talks of curtailing the hallowed privilege are gone from his public remarks. Nevertheless, the current situation is untenable. Its time to start talking about nationalizing Facebook and platforms like it.
Social networks have become part of our critical infrastructure. The data they contain have been used to influence elections. Targeted advertisements have created virtual social bubbles that beguile us into consuming news reinforcing — rather than challenging — our biases, contributing to a polarized political climate.
And yet we know that social networks also have enormous potential as tools for civic engagement, social cohesion and direct democracy. During the Arab Spring, young people challenged censorship and authority by communicating through social media to bypass crackdowns on freedom of expression.
The only way to rein in Facebook — and allow people to harness it for good rather than to hack elections and disrupt democratic processes — is to take it out of the hands of people like Zuckerberg.
Data is the new oil, and Facebook is sitting on a gusher: the likes, inclinations, and preferences of more than 2 billion people worldwide.
Facebooks core business model is simple: exploit user data. Weve known this since 2004, when Zuckerberg affectionately referred to users as “dumb f**ks” for entrusting him with their information.
Data is the new oil, and Facebook is sitting on a gusher: the likes, inclinations, and preferences of more than 2 billion people worldwide. Tapping into this well relies on constantly increasing users and engagements, churning out precious data to sell to advertisers, privacy concerns be damned.
Unfazed by almost a dozen data breaches — and under fire for allowing “fake news,” Russian meddling in Western elections, the logging of texts and phone calls, hate speech and child abuse posts — the company continues to monetize the data we nonchalantly give away for free.
And why should it worry? Despite all the hubbub about the recent stock market crash, the social media giant generated $13.2 billion in revenue last quarter — a 42 percent increase over the same period the previous year. Profits, too, jumped 31 percent to $5.1 billion.
The question is whether we can muster the political will to challenge Silicon Valley, and hold its leaders to their own promises.
We shouldnt then be surprised by just how laughable Facebooks attempts at self-regulation have been. By its very design, it has little incentive to change — its a money-making machine.
But as crucial elections loom over both Europe and the U.S., its becoming increasingly urgent that our data is properly safeguarded from undue influence and interference.
Facebooks former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, has already said the U.S. midterm elections cannot be protected from foreign hacking, and that shielding future elections from similar problems will require increased governmental regulation.
But if we can admit platforms like Facebook are critically important to our security, we need to be bolder, and that means taking public control.
Establishing new public social media, or transforming Facebook into an independent, non-partisan entity similar to the BBC, would maintain the benefits of social networks, while shielding our data from commercial and political interests.
Over a third of people in the U.K., U.S., Germany and France now turn to social media for news. The percentage is even greater among younger people. The broadcasting landscape is changing and our societies urgently need to adapt.
One way to do so would be for countries to develop their own public or nonprofit social media organizations. Following U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyns proposal, the European Union should take the lead and coordinate the efforts of its member states to create a “European Digital Corporation.”
A combination of existing policy tools — heavily taxing private social media companies, for example, and banning targeted advertisement and the use of personal information for commercial gain — would softly sentence Facebook to death. Especially if they are combined with new, high-quality public social media alternatives.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg | Alex Wong/Getty Images
Another possibility would be to simply nationalize existing social media firms. Even in the Land of Free Markets, nationalizations are not uncommon. As recently as 2008 — at the height of the financial crisis — the Obama and Bush administrations took public control of banks, mortgage companies, automotive industries. In Britain and continental Europe too, the late 1940s saw widespread nationalizations.
Clearly, we know how to do it, and social media regulation is arguably becoming a matter of national security.
Its important however that public social media organizations be rapidly withdrawn from direct governmental control and made to coordinate their efforts across national boundaries. This is crucial. Nobody wants a U.S. President Donald Trump or British blowhard Boris Johnson in control of your social media feed — and the point of much of social media is to communicate across national boundaries.
This is not a remote possibility. The tools exist. A blueprint is ready. The question is whether we can muster the political will to challenge Silicon Valley, and hold its leaders to their own promises.
Gianmarco Raddi is an MD/PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and UCLA medical school (@gianmarcoraddi)
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