Facebook is getting the pounding it deserves for its shocking carelessness in allowing the antidemocratic, lying sleazebags at Cambridge Analytica to harvest the data of some 50 million users. Plenty of my friends are fleeing Facebook in utterly justified outrage. They’re joining a growing #DeleteFacebook campaign—and that tardy we’ve-already-fixed-it apology from Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg has only rubbed salt in the wound.
Still, I’m not joining the exodus—at least not yet. I still find Facebook a valuable and important self-publishing and communication platform. For all its flaws, it remains a vital tool for political activism—just look, for instance, at how important Facebook and other social media were in organizing the West Virginia teachers’ strike, or the wave of student mobilization after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, right up through this coming weekend’s march on Washington.
Don’t get me wrong. I think Zuckerberg and Sandberg should take early retirement to Antarctica. But the root of the problem isn’t Facebook. It is about ideas and about politics: the mindless corporate libertarianism that dominates this company and the entire tech industry.
Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google—the whole field is built on the idea that an individual’s data is a commodity to be mined, without regulation, like bauxite or titanium. Silicon Valley clings to the conviction that “free speech” means that host corporations have no responsibility for the consequential falsehoods, threats, or exploitative images published on their profit-making platforms; that the vast wealth generated by these ventures can be concentrated in the hands of a tiny technocratic elite; and that these companies and their satellites are justified in incorporating in tax havens to protect themselves from even the minimal civic responsibilities incumbent on ordinary businesses. The liberal veneer of the tech industry on social issues masks broader rapacious betrayals of the broader social contract.
So, sure, we can hope for a better alternative to Facebook. We can hope for technology that does a better job of protecting privacy—the way Skype was supposed to be more secure than e-mail, until it wasn’t; the way WhatsApp is supposed to be better-encrypted messaging, except it’s owned by Facebook; the way Signal is supposed to be even more impenetrable, until the day some hacker or spy breaks into it.
We can be on an endless hamster wheel of waiting for the Next Better Platform—which is only better until it isn’t. Or we can abandon the social-media ship, which takes us out of communication with millions. Either alternative changes nothing; they only kick the can of tech-industry social responsibility down the road.
The genuine alternative: We can declare it’s time for communication platforms to be recognized as essential utilities for modern society; and like other such utilities, they should be regulated, subject to robust public scrutiny and accountability.