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.
Like most citizens I am an ordinary social-media consumer, with little patience for discussions of APIs and algorithms. If I’d been born a century earlier, I would be just as glass-eyed at lectures by brilliant geologists and engineers about the then-new petroleum industry. But that’s exactly the point. It wasn’t engineers and entrepreneurs of the Progressive era who finally reined in Standard Oil and the rest of America’s rapacious petroleum trusts, which had been rigging prices without consequence and buying up legislators like five-cent cigars. It was a generation of reform-minded politicians, crusading lawyers, muckraking journalists, and outraged voters who valued their country’s century-old democratic experiment. These folks understood that the nation’s functional checks and balances had been upended and corrupted by unprecedented and unforeseen concentrations of wealth and influence. That is precisely what is at stake in the Facebook mess, and why the often-liberal, sometimes-genius leaders of the tech industry now find themselves tied through Cambridge Analytica to some of the worst people on the planet. The issue isn’t about whether Farmville has too much of your data. And it isn’t a problem that engineers or entrepreneurs can fix.
It’s clear that there are already some good ideas out there, and deeply informed voices sounding the alarm. I’m impressed by the decency and democratic motivations of the tech-industry dissidents at the Center for Humane Technology. There are also legislative efforts—tentative and limited—that go in the right direction: Representative Ro Khanna has proposed an Internet Bill of Rights, focused mainly on data privacy; Senator Amy Klobuchar has called for regulating campaign advertising on social media as it is now regulated for broadcasters.
But the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal—revealed, it should be noted, by transnational investigative reporters working in the muckraking tradition first defined in the reform wave against 19th-century trusts—shows that the stakes are bigger, so the solutions must be more ambitious. As citizens we can demand powerful legislation offsetting social-media companies’ unique and destabilizing concentration of power. As users and consumers, we can demand that companies—starting with Facebook—live up to a higher standard.
So, while I’m not leaving the field, if someone wants to organize a Day Without Facebook to demand a new social-media pact—count me in.