Thursday, August 16, 2012

Nationalize Facebook? Hardly.

Everyone has something they hate about Facebook.

Whether it’s the privacy settings the company constantly seems to mess up on, the invasive barrage of advertising, the threat of in-post advertising if we happen to mention a product – any product – whether it’s in a positive or negative light, potential for hate or frustration exist.

The company is notorious for keeping user data even after the user has deleted it, for leading users down the garden path to an illusion of privacy, touting ad campaigns on its site that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be and making user-related changes without actually consulting the user beforehand.

They’re also, according to Phillip N. Howard, writing for, hindering researchers’ access to user information and generally making it icky for anyone outside the company to get a look at the data the company itself is a bit nonchalant with inside its own walls.

His answer: Nationalize it.

Have the US government – a bastion of truth and righteousness which never gets up to nefarious mischief – take it over. Or at least regulate it like a public utility. Here’s the core of his argument:

By “nationalizing Facebook,” I mean public ownership and at least a majority share at first. When nationalizing 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 fulfill its true potential for providing social good, and force it to put its valuable data to work on significant social problems.
Let’s get the slippery slope argument out of the way right away so we can move on to something more constructive. George Orwell’s (you knew his name was going to come up) government in 1984 would be all for this kind of nationalization. Sure, they’re spying on us already via the internet and traffic cameras, if the more wild conspiracy theories are to be believed. Let’s just hand them the key to the henhouse as well as the hens. That’ll solve everything.

Now back off the slippery slope.

Mr. Norman seems to think that a government controlling interest in Facebook would open up its data for “social good.” He defines part of the “social good” as medical research. Now if he thinks the government has all the rights to turn over data like this – or any kind of data, for that matter – to medical researchers, he’s obviously never heard of HIPAA, which puts strict privacy measures on health care providers. They can’t share their information willy-nilly, lest they violate HIPAA’s privacy statue. So unless Mr. Norman wants to nationalize health care – and he probably does – and nullify HIPAA’s privacy statute, he’s not going to achieve the “social good” of medical research he envisions by nationalizing a social network which, the last time I checked, isn’t rife with people’s vital statistics.

Sure, researchers could glean some information from Facebook – looking at pictures of, say, fat people, or listen in on people discussing fast food, drug or alcohol abuse, etc. They could also turn to the US Census Bureau and other public entities which already offer similar information.

He looks at other goods as well.

Facebook, for example, doesn’t allow pseudonyms. If you’re, say, a rebel in Syria and you want to use Facebook to communicate with other revolutionaries, you have to use your real name – and then Mr. Assad drops a big bomb on your house.

Last time I checked, Facebook – despite Mr. Norman’s contention – isn’t a monopoly. There are plenty of ways revolutionaries – and ordinary citizens – can use the internet in a way that’s much more private than Facebook. Facebook may be ubiquitous and popular, but it’s hardly the single option out there. The Green Revolution in Iran tried successfully – at least to a point – to use Twitter as a communication tool until the government of Iran – which has a nationalized internet policy – shut them down. (Sorry; back on the slippery slope again.)

Mr. Norman contends that a US government interest in Facebook and the allowance of pseudonyms would allow revolutionaries to freely communicate on the social network and have a modicum of protection from the government that controls the information. To that I say ha ha. Even HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Syria and Iran aren’t suddenly going to respect Facebook because the US government owns a part of it. Israel, after all, owns a part of the Fertile Crescent, and we see how well respected that country is in Syria and Iran these days. Or any day.

You want cooperation from Facebook on social good, Mr. Norman? I hardly think a government takeover will do the job – not to mention the number of Facebook users and privacy advocates and business leaders and other such people who would absolutely go bonkers at the idea of the government getting their hands on more information, more commerce, and such. (And this is being said by a guy who wouldn’t mind seeing a national health care option and would seriously investigate taking it, if it made financial sense, so I’m not the knuckle-dragging conservative you might suspect.)

Mr. Norman cites the BBC as an example of a government-controlled information service that does the public good. He conveniently leaves out the fact that to use that public good, residents of England must pay an annual licensing fee of $192 per color television and $64 per black and white television in order to partake of that public good. Can you see Facebook users paying to use the service, if it were a public entity doing social good? Maybe some would. But the majority would bail in seconds. I know I would. I already pay to use an ISP -- government-regulated, mind you -- but I'm not about to pay to use popular websites.

No, Mr. Norman doesn't say the government would make us pay to use Facebook if they owned it. But as part owner -- taking on the expenses as well as the "social good" the site could provide -- the money would have to come from somewhere. Given the backlash against advertising on Facebook and the government's prelidiction to tax as well as regulate, well, you can see we're back on that slippery slope again. So sorry.

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