NYT - April 5, 2018
Don't Fix Facebook, Replace It
Tim Wu is a law professor at Columbia, the author of “The Attention Merchants: The Epic Struggle to Get Inside Our Heads” and a contributing opinion writer.
"After years of collecting way too much data, Facebook has finally been caught in the facilitation of one privacy debacle too many. When Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, testifies before Congress, which he plans to do this month, lawmakers will no doubt ask how Facebook might restore the public’s trust and whether it might accept some measure of regulation. Yet in the big picture, these are the wrong questions to be asking.
The right question: What comes after Facebook? Yes, we have come to depend on social networks, but instead of accepting an inherently flawed Facebook monopoly, what we most need now is a new generation of social media platforms that are fundamentally different in their incentives and dedication to protecting user data. Barring a total overhaul of leadership and business model, Facebook will never be that platform.
Every business has its founding DNA. Real corporate change is rare, especially when the same leaders remain in charge. In Facebook’s case, we are not speaking of a few missteps here and there, the misbehavior of a few aberrant employees. The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal, maximizing the harvest of data and human attention. Its promises to investors have demanded an ever-improving ability to spy on and manipulate large populations of people. Facebook, at its core, is a surveillance machine, and to expect that to change is misplaced optimism.'
What the journalist Walter Lippmann said in 1959 of “free” TV is also true of “free” social media: It is ultimately “the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandizing.” But social media itself isn’t going away. It has worked its way into our lives and has come to help satistify the basic human need to connect and catch up. Facebook, in fact, claims lofty goals, saying it seeks to “bring us closer together” and “build a global community.” Those are indeed noble purposes that social media can serve. But if they were Facebook’s true goals, we would not be here.
The ideal competitor and successor to Facebook would be a platform that actually puts such goals first. To do so, however, it cannot be just another data-hoarder, like Google Plus. If we have learned anything over the last decade, it is that advertising and data-collection models are incompatible with a trustworthy social media network. The conflicts are too formidable, the pressure to amass data and promise everything to advertisers is too strong for even the well-intentioned to resist.
So what stands in the way of building a genuine alternative? It isn’t the technology. A good Facebook competitor needs merely to build a platform that links you with friends and allows posting of thoughts, pictures and comments. No, the real challenge is gaining a critical mass of users. Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users, will not disappear, and it has a track record of buying or diminishing its rivals (see Instagram and Foursquare). But as Lyft is proving by stealing market share from Uber, and as Snapchat proved by taking younger audiences from Facebook, “network effects” are not destiny. Now is the time for a new generation of Facebook competitors that challenge the mother ship.
One set of Facebook alternatives might be provided by firms that are credibly privacy-protective, for which users would pay a small fee (perhaps 99 cents a month). In an age of “free” social media, paying might sound implausible — but keep in mind that payment better aligns the incentives of the platform with those of its users. The payment and social network might be bundled with other products such as the iPhone or the Mozilla or Brave browser.
Another “alt-Facebook” could be a nonprofit that uses that status to signal its dedication to better practices, much as nonprofit hospitals and universities do. Wikipedia is a nonprofit, and it manages nearly as much traffic as Facebook, on a much smaller budget. An “alt-Facebook” could be started by Wikimedia, or by former Facebook employees, many of whom have congregated at the Center for Humane Technology, a nonprofit for those looking to change Silicon Valley’s culture. It could even be funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was created in reaction to the failures of commercial television and whose mission includes ensuring access to “telecommunications services that are commercial free and free of charge.”
When a company fails, as Facebook has, it is natural for the government to demand that it fix itself or face regulation. But competition can also create pressure to do better. If today’s privacy scandals lead us merely to install Facebook as a regulated monopolist, insulated from competition, we will have failed completely. The world does not need an established church of social media."
MB: Runaway Technology (September 2017)
Societies are shaped by technology. That’s always been true. Be it: fire, the wheel, fermented drinks, the stirrup, the printing press, the internal combustion engine, electricity, the computer. The applications and management of technological innovation trace a more complicated trajectory than the techniques themselves. Nothing is compelling or automatic.
These days, the most radical technological innovations are occurring in the field of digital communications. Other discoveries germinate more slowly, e.g. in bio-medicine. The routinization of invention in IT shortens the time gap between break-through and practical use. Consequently, sober consideration of and preparation for their applications and for their socio-economic implications (to which we might add indirect political implications) lags badly. The resulting challenges and dilemmas have largely eluded us due to the widespread inclination to interpret these technical developments as inherently good and desirable. They represent Progress. That inclination is reinforced by the enormous amounts of money to be gained from their application. Billionaires sprout like mushrooms after a spring rain. That accords them fame, clout and a powerful self-interest to promote the cult of IT progress. The dynamics of pop culture generate hordes of fans, and energized would-be billionaires the way that Napoleon’s victories had every French soldier carrying a Marshall’s baton in his knapsack. The billions themselves buy favorable publicity and politicians.
Most celebrate this phenomenon. It reassures Americans that we’re still the greatest creative nation on earth. It burnishes the Horatio Alger myth. And it offers products that are fun. Isn’t fun what contemporary America is all about? Especially fun that you (theoretically) have personal control over? The heady brew of technology, money and fun does have the drawback of muting our skeptical instincts and accepting without question some quite curious innovations in deciding who organizes, manages and directs technology. Here are a couple of current examples.
Facebook, which has morphed into a news aggregator and conveyer – among many other things, is being asked by the federal government to look into ways of suppressing “fake news.” So, too, are other popular social media such as Google. (Trending Topics feature; AdSense). This is spurred by the latest flurry of incidents wherein malicious or simply moronic persons make up stories and insert them onto the Internet. Social media’s hyper-conductive powers then spread this “news” rapidly around the globe where it is absorbed by the ignorant and the gullible. Big problem! – so we are told. Why? Well an astonishing number of people get their “news” via Facebook et al. Their minds are open to whatever is spawned since the accumulation of information and critical thinking are out of fashion.
If these conditions are taken as given, then it seems to follow that something has to be done about it, by someone. Maybe, indelible electronic warning signs should be placed on sites/sources that play these games. Maybe, they should be kept out of the social media altogether (even if they could be back under another handle within 5 minutes). Whatever the means, there is an emerging consensus that ‘the people’ now must be protected from their own mindless naivete.
Who should do the job? It’s pretty much assumed that the owners/overseers of social media are the right people. Mark Zuckerberg for one. So, the Zuck and his Google counterpart have responded to importuning voices already by jumping out in front with proposals for policing social media in order to save us from “fake news.” What are his qualifications? He is a celebrity, he is a cult figure, he has huge amounts of money, he’s announced plans to get into the “good cause” business a la Bill Gates (who is devoting his cachet and cash to the cause of dismantling public schools), and he supposedly is apolitical – albeit he’s gotten into the habit of pronouncing on matters of national interest about which he knows next-to-nothing (to be generous). Zuck, and his enforcer Sheryl Sandberg, practice the art of leaning-in.*
How about public officials who are constitutionally mandated to look after the public interest? If not elected officials, how about an independent regulatory authority? How about a special court like the FISA court? How about the trustees of PBS (overlooking the inconvenient fact that one of the notorious Koch brothers now sits on the Board and a recent CEO was former Chairwoman of the Republican National Committee). The answer is simple: this is America and Americans don’t trust government. If the government does it, any regulation smacks of censorship. If Zuck – along with his counterparts at Reddit, Snapchat and Listening Post do it, then it’s not censorship. Or so we are meant to believe.
The oddity of this widely held notion comes into relief when we compare it with the management of earlier technological innovations – even those in the communications sector. Take the telephone. From the outset, it was conceived in strictly instrumental terms. Companies made service available for which the customer paid a monthly amount. They handled the technical side and the financial side. The uses to which it was put was up to you or me. It was none of the Bell Company’s - or anyone else’s - business. Certainly, Alexander Graham Bell wasn’t called upon to identify purveyors of “fake news” transmitted over the lines and to alert all telephone users whom to watch out for.
Of course, the telephone has been used for criminal purposes, for seditious purposes in extremely rare instances, and for all sorts of nuisance purposes. The answer: have legal authorities pursue possible criminals. As for the rest, it was up to the user to deal with crank calls, sellers of noxious products or ideas, obscenity calls, etc. Nor, we should remind ourselves, were telephone calls overlaid by audio pop-ups recorded by outfits offering their services to clear clogged drains. Selling that audio space would indeed have made the telephone company owners even richer than they were. They might have risen into the ranks of the billionaires and qualified for a cabinet position in Washington. But to do so would have brought down the public’s wrath and the intervention of a state’s public utilities commission (aka a repressive government bureaucracy intent on curbing our freedoms).
It is stunning how far we have regressed in the loss of any sense of collective good and public authorities as its safeguard. Nowadays, we accept the commercialization of an instrument of communication for no other purpose than to enrich Zuck and his fellows. Nobody else benefits. And then we turn to them for protection from the menace of “fake news” which those companies have created – in two ways. By fostering addiction to means of so-called communication that transmit very little information and by using their control of the medium to disseminate dubious content by acting as an electronic newsstand.