Tuesday, January 31, 2017

On life without Facebook

Over the past few years I have been diligently collecting public pledges to abandon Facebook, a subset of the equally interesting genre of people saying they will quit the internet altogether. While I seldom agree with the arguments, I look for the sentiments hidden behind these declarations. What these pieces often don’t say but invariably mean is that the swift rise of the networked society has had a profoundly unsettling effect on people’s daily lives. To resent or wish to undo these changes can be a conservative reaction, and Nathan Jurgenson is right to criticise the fashion for disconnectionism. But equally it pays to acknowledge that the social space outside of the networks is getting steadily smaller. Nobody can really quit the internet, while quitting Facebook alone is becoming increasingly difficult for those who aspire to social participation. Few people seem to actually love Facebook, yet (almost) everyone uses it. Therein lies the genius of its creators.

But what if Facebook decided to quit us? Last year it emerged that the company had run a singularly disconcerting experiment, whereby it deliberately crashed its android app among certain users over and over again in order to test whether they would continue using the platform through other means or give up altogether. At the time of the experiment, Facebook was locked in a turf war with Google and was apparently making preparations in case its app should be kicked out of the Google Play store on the Android mobile platform. But the episode highlights to what degree users of social networks are at the mercy of their owners, and in turn how little responsibility is placed upon those owners to act fairly and transparently toward people.

The issue is that search engines and social networks have become key pieces of public infrastructure. In capitalist societies, it is generally accepted that such utilities cannot be run as private monopolies, for this would end up harming consumers and in some cases distort the democratic process. Yet, in a few short years, Google and Facebook have been allowed to grow unchecked into two of the most powerful corporations in the world, and wield the power to both autonomously regulate and control something as fundamental to the global polity as the flow of information.

In the case of Facebook, what is at stake is not just the freedom to share pictures with our friends or stay in touch with family, valuable as those things are. It is not even about our special interest groups or the tools that allow us to organise political meetings or rallies. The network has become one of the principal delivery mechanisms for journalism and a major collector of advertising revenue on behalf – or more frequently in place of – the journalism industry. Its market dominance has allowed it to negotiate relationships with media companies from a position of almost incomprehensible strength. Given that it is Facebook’s proprietary algorithms, much more so than our choice of contacts, that ultimately determines the information that is placed in front of our eyes, the implications for how public opinion is shaped are staggering. Yet while these issues are widely discussed on social media and in the popular press, they are rarely a subject of actual political debate. We are not yet at the stage, for instance, when political parties are expected to go into elections armed with a Facebook policy, or a Google policy.

What might such policies look like? In the most radical instance, they might include calls to nationalise the services, as was suggested in Facebook’s case as early as in 2012. But antitrust interventions consistent with orthodox political and economic thinking are also quite conceivable.

The task of ‘breaking up’ Facebook, should we develop an appetite for it, ought to be relatively simple. The question is not to make it easier for competitors to enter the social network market and compete with the company, seeing as nobody is actually stopping them. We really need to think of Facebook as the actual infrastructure here, as is already literally the cases in the developing countries where the company is offering not just its standard service but access to the internet itself, via its internet.org project and various agreements with ISPs. However, it is its growing directory of the world’s people, which currently stands at an estimated 1.79 billion active users, which has developed into a classic natural monopoly.

What if the company were forced to give up access to its own network, then, and to allow users to choose what client to access it with? Different clients would be able to use their own algorithms, thus not only presenting information differently but actually presenting different information. Some may be free of advertising, while others may be more sensitive to social causes or privilege local news sources. Every one of your status updates would be sent to all of the clients, much like an email, as would the individual replies coming back. Clear rules and a system of checks could be developed in order to deal with abusive behaviour and ban offending users. And if, say, the European Union didn’t like how Facebook goes abound tracking user data, it could restrict use of Facebook’s own Facebook client – the surface layer of the great social network – without shutting European users out of the service altogether.

This is nothing more than a thought experiment, but seeing as Facebook apparently goes around repeatedly shutting out users for little more than its own fun, we should be allowed to engage in it. Besides this is but the dawn of the global networked society, and there is every indication that the power of the likes of Facebook and Google will do nothing but increase in the years to come. The nations and the international institutions that value democracy might do well to develop their own contingency plan, like Facebook did when it feared it might be shut out of Google’s mobile platform.

But the implications of entertaining these questions are broader than that. Our collective political imagination has become starved of the visions for a democratic internet that used to be commonplace as recently as two decades ago. We could reasonably blame Google and Facebook for this, along with every other corporation that has participated in the encircling of the digital commons. We need to reinvigorate those utopian projects, even if it means thinking what has become increasingly unthinkable: a world beyond Facebook.

Originally published at Overland.