Thinking through the "What should we do about Facebook?" question


#1

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2018/04/27/party-like-its-1902.html


#2

So long as social media is based on a platform there will be big advantage to being on the same platform as your friends, and therefore to have one or two big players. You don’t want to have to think "well Jill’s on Bingo and I’m following John on talkie but I can only contact Li on Maoster. I think that what is needed is an alternate system where the post are coded such that they are essentially emails of somewhat standard format sent to user managed lists. Of course the chance of this happening, especially with the end of net-neutrality are minimal.


#3

I think that part of the solution would have to involve some sort of mandated interoperation.

The Bad Old Days, when Ma Bell Hubbard ruled the telecommunication arena with an iron fist, came about at least in part because of the network effect. Prior to the entrenchment of the Bell monopoly, there was a handful of cities where there was meaningful competition. In those places, a business might have to maintain Bell, General and Home telephones in order that all its customers could reach it, and a home user, who could ill afford that luxury, might choose the service based on whom friends and family chose to use. In a network without interoperation, that effect alone will make a natural monopoly emerge.

Of course, I ignore the effects of regulated access to the last mile, and a ton of other effects. I’m focusing on the network externality because that’s Facebook’s entire stock in trade.

By contrast, with near-universal interoperability, we now have an oligopoly of telephone service providers. No single player can say, “Do business with me, because you’ll be isolated from your friends otherwise!” because I can pick up my device and have roughly the same services when I ask to reach a competitor’s customer.

I’m well aware that the carriers can still stifle competition They do this not only with regulatory capture, zoning control, and access to tower sites, but also by extortionate peering and transit agreements with smaller carriers. These have to be policed - what was it that Poor RIchard said about eternal vigilance? - but by and large, no single entity has monopolistic control.

Having an open protocol suite for social media interchange, and requiring peering arrangements, would go a long way to enable the monopoly to be broken up without destroying the value of the network.


#4

We had that, but Microsoft and Google had a slap-fight and wrecked it; with Facebook laughing all the way to the bank election.


#5

Indeed the freight tunnels under the “loop” of Chicago were originally permitted on the basis of allowing a competing telephone company. One of the selling points was that they would have “secret” telephones, where you wouldn’t have to tell an operator whom you were calling.


#6

Beyond anti-trust authorities truly internalising the fact that a company offering a"free" service or product can still gouge consumers if it gets large enough, another fundamental change in outlook that has to happen is an acceptance of the idea that individuals own their own data (for better or worse). Without those two things happening. nothing will change.


#7

Thinking? Just #deletefacebook, it’s simple.


#8

Isn’t there a whackload of stories (dating back to well before the controversies of recent months) insisting that Facebook is dying and that it is only through acquiring other companies that it can hope to remain relevant? I expect that if sufficient restrictions are imposed on Facebook, then something else unbound by those restrictions is just going to quietly emerge to fulfill whatever needs Facebook currently satisfies.


#9

Consider an analogy to the telephone system. We can break up a single telephone provider in to several smaller companies and yet we can communicate with people who aren’t customers of the provider you might be using. This eliminates the constraints of platform.


#10

Snowden’s thoughts on this are probably familiar by now: “Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as ‘surveillance companies.’ Their rebranding as ‘social media’ is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.”

This critical view needs to be part of the discussion. The matter is not how Facebook might be saved but how social media, as it’s presently designed, facilitates a totalitarian politics, perhaps makes it inevitable.

For thoughtful comments about this, listen to Doctorow’s The Totalitarian Urge.


#11

Yes. I’m just trying to conceptualize in the very broadest sense how this could happen. As kennykb pointed out that was not always the case with telephone companies. Indeed ma bell used to disconnect you for connecting a phone that did not belong to them to their network. They would periodically test the voltage drop from your ring tone and if it indicated that you had more ringers connected to the line than phones that you were leasing you were cut off.


#12

Thankfully we at one time had FCC leadership that put a stop to these sorts of anti competitive practices.

Standardize the formatting of social media content for distribution. Platforms need not change the way they operate but would instead have a common interface for exchanging data between platforms. XML would be an excellent format to start with. All that would need to be done would be to establish a standard for how the XML should be formatted.

Which makes me think that if this was the route we went, there would be excellent opportunities for startups in the data exchange brokerage sector. Companies could offer to operate your data exchange and even have value added services like spam and questionable content filtering.


#13

I think that the critical questions of the “Facebook Problem” are:

  • What must we do to preserve our individual and social right of self determination?
  • How do we make positive changes in this adverse environment?

It is obvious that effective manipulation is present. Technology has enhanced our ability to gather personal info; to control info; to predict human behavior; and to control association. Facebook is making effective use of all these abilities.

Facebook’s power doesn’t make manipulation legitimate. Manipulation advances the goals of the manipulator. Manipulation has no basis in reality. It has no fundamental respect for reality. Past manipulation has always divorced the victims from reality. Manipulation weakens both individuals and society. Facebook’s manipulation doesn’t become legitimate, just because Facebook is big, powerful and effective.

Facebook doesn’t fit our previous models of manipulator. It is not a parent, an educator, a lawyer, a news agency, a religion or a government. Facebook has elements of all of these.

We created our government to protect our unalienable rights. One of these is our right of self determination. It is reasonable to demand that our government protect us from manipulation. It is reasonable for our government to act.

Lets examine our options:

  • Forget or forbid the technology? The technology of personal manipulation is well publicized. Deploying manipulation doesn’t require controllable expertise or controllable components. This seems to be a ineffective.
  • Teach legitimate and illegitimate use? This has lots of successful models. It is necessary. But education will not protect the powerless from the powerful.
  • Monitor and control manipulation? There are plenty of past models. But power begets power. Monitor and control is inherently unstable.
  • Limit dissemination of person info? Dangerous personal info has intrinsic value. If the info works for prediction and manipulation, then it will always be valuable. It is tough to fight adverse economic forces. We can’t eliminate the value of effective personal info, but we can increase it’s cost.

In order to preserve self-determination, we may require our government to institute several changes. These changes should be on several, re-enforcing fronts:

  • Establish and disseminate to the public the exact nature of the “Facebook Problem”. Specifically: The conditions that enable successful manipulation; The extent of manipulation that occurred; The probable consequences of that manipulation.
  • Define limits and guidelines for social manipulation. Define criteria and rubrics for understanding when social manipulation crosses the ethical boundary between “helpful” and “harmful”. Define measurable criteria for when manipulation crosses the legal boundary between “legal” and “criminal”.
  • Institute and empower government to continue to monitor manipulation via social media, the search engines, the ISPs and the other information choke-points.
  • Institute and empower government to track and limit the movement of “dangerous” personal information. For now, we must employ a De Facto definition. Collecting and storing personal info costs money. If personal info is collected and sold, it must be valuable, therefore is must be effective at prediction and manipulation, therefore it must be dangerous to self-determination.

If I were Emperor-For-A-Day, I would declare:

  • Since personal information enables manipulation and threatens self-determination, then controlling personal information is an unalienable right.
  • You can not take away a person’s ability to control their own information. No contract or law can be made binding over a person’s right to control their own information. A convicted criminal may experience a temporary suspension of their rights. But, the right of the innocent to control their personal information is inviolate.
  • A citizen may enable itself by extending the use of their personal information to another. The other does not gain ownership of the personal information. The other must disclose how and when they use personal information. The other must eliminate stored personal information when the relationship is terminated.
  • Government must protect a person’s right of self-determination by protecting their personal information.
  • Government can’t threaten their citizen’s right of self-determination through it’s use of personal information, or by failing to protect personal information.
  • Attempting to move personal information beyond individual self control is an attack on the citizens and the government. Government will forbid uncontrolled personal information. When collection of uncontrolled personal information occurs, then government will destroy the information, and pursue and punish the guilty. Even, if the collection is beyond normal government jurisdiction.

I am not sure how we implement these kinds of changes (without making me Emperor-For-A-Day). I suspect we will have to yell at our legislature. A lot.


#14

Really DoJ rather than the FCC https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breakup_of_the_Bell_System


#15

Luckily for you, there have been protocols to do that for ages :slight_smile: Mastodon got featured on BB a while ago, GNU Social dates back to 2008, Diaspora the early 2010’s, and I implemented one of my own (using GNU Social’s protocol) for my Senior Capstone.


#16

The main reason why Facebook is the way it is is that we (the users) are too cheap to pay a modest contribution, in real money, towards its upkeep. The Facebook software doesn’t write itself and the servers don’t run on air, so there are costs involved in keeping Facebook going. Since we (the users) don’t want to pay, Facebook is forced to find its money elsewhere, hence advertising, hence massive creepy data collection in order to be useful to advertisers.

If everyone who used Facebook paid $1/month for the privilege, Facebook would have an annual income of $24 billion (plus change). That would be more than enough to keep the service going and still leave some money to pay Mr Zuckerberg a princely salary. The main difference would be that Facebook would no longer have to bother with advertisers and could concentrate on making the servie more awesome for its paying customers (us).

Of course this won’t ever happen because (a) Facebook is supposed to be “free” (meaning you pay with your privacy rather than your money), and (b) the instant Facebook announces that it will from now on charge $1/month – which is a fraction of the price of a cup of fancy coffee – everyone will cry “outrage” and shift to a “free” service such as Google+.

Finally, Mr Zuckerberg argues that Facebook must be “free” so poor peasants in the Third World can afford to use it. This is not a problem because Facebook can charge people in rich countries $2/month rather than $1/month, as a subsidy so the service can still be free for the poor peasants. This would still be a fraction of the price of a cup of fancy coffee, plus you get the warm fuzzy feeling of having made life nicer for a bunch of poor people who would otherwise have to go without Facebook.


#17

I don’t recall them asking.


#18

Richard Stallman had a Guardian column recently with a “modest proposal”: Ban the collection of data by software systems which are not necessary for the primary operation of that service. Are all kinds of location data, login times, inferences about political opinions, etc., which Facebook uses to put people into buckets for ad sales, necessary for its primary function? No - so off with their head.

And are location, identity, preferences, search histories personal details etc. necessary for the operation of a search engine? Or for a video sharing site? Or for a smartphone operating system? No, of course not - so off with their head.

These rules could and should be enforced by inspections and fines similar to those of the EU’s new data protection directive, the GDPR, most notably equally draconian fines.

Stallman’s entirely reasonable proposal would thus terminate Google’s and Facebook’s business models. So what to do about them? Google’s search engine minus the surveillance is too god to throw away. Instead, a coalition of governments, say, under UN auspices, could contract Google to keep running its services - with no surveillance, and no ads. Google’s shareholders should be happy.

Facebook is less valuable and could try to fend for itself - say, introducing ad subscription model to be able to run minus the surveillance.

I think such a simple solution based on a simple ethical principle - no unnecessary data collection about individuals - is far superior to an “outcome regulation” that dosn’t address the fundamental problem of surveillance.


#19

In an ideal world, the public will always be citizens not customers…

Fixed it for you.


#20

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