Why We Should Nationalize Facebook—Really

What's to come?
Aug. 16 2012 7:07 AM

Let’s Nationalize Facebook

Only then will the social network protect users’ rights and share valuable data with researchers.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks with Washington Post Chairman and CEO Donald Graham on July 12, 2012 in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in July

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

Over the last several years, Facebook has become a public good and an important social resource. But as a company, it is behaving badly, and long term, that may cost it: A spring survey found that almost half of Americans believe that Facebook will eventually fade away. Even the business side has been a bit of a disaster lately, with earnings lower than expected and the news that a significant portion of Facebook profiles are fake. If neither users nor investors can be confident in the company, it’s time we start discussing an idea that might seem crazy: nationalizing Facebook.

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 start with privacy. Right now, the company violates everybody’s privacy expectations, not to mention privacy laws. It also struggles to respond properly to regulatory requests in different countries. In part, this is because its services are designed to meet the bare minimum of legal expectations in each jurisdiction. When users in Europe request copies of the data Facebook keeps on them, they are sent huge volumes of records. But not every user lives in a jurisdiction that requires such responsiveness from Facebook—U.S. users are out of luck because their regulators don’t ask as many questions as those in the European Union and Canada. Privacy watchdogs consistently complain that the company uses user data in ways they didn't agree to or anticipate. There are suspicions that the company creates shadow profiles of people who aren’t even users but whose names get mentioned by people who are Facebook users.

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Few of us fully understand Facebook’s privacy policy, much less keep track of changes. People are sharing more personal information on Facebook than they think they are. And for every dozen Facebook users in the United States, one does not use privacy settings—either because that person doesn’t care or doesn’t know enough about how the privacy settings can be used. True, Facebook recently provided an opportunity for users to vote on changes to the interface. But the program seemed more like a gimmick designed to placate the most opinionated and tech-savvy users: It was not heavily promoted and not a serious effort to educate the public and survey opinion. Indeed, few people voted.

It would be better to have a national privacy commissioner with real authority, some stringent privacy standards set at the federal level, and programs for making good use of some of the socially valuable data mining that firms like Facebook do. But in the United States, such sweeping innovations are probably too difficult to actually pull off, and nationalization would almost get us there. Facebook would have to rise to First Amendment standards rather than their own terms of service. The company could be regulated the way public utilities often are.

With 80 percent of market share, Facebook is already a monopoly, and being publicly traded hasn’t made it more socially responsible. The map of its global market dominance is impressive, though some might say this is a map of colonization. In its recent SEC filing, Facebook declared its goal of connecting all Internet users. The company actually wants to be public information infrastructure, and to that end its tools have been used for a lot of good, like encouraging organ donations and helping activists build social movements in countries run by tough dictators.

But Facebook can also make mistakes with political consequences. The company has come under fire for missteps like prohibiting photos of women breast-feeding and suddenly banning “Palestinian” pages at one point. Facebook communications are an important tool for democracy advocates, including those who helped organize the Arab Spring. Yet the user policy of requiring that democratic activists in authoritarian regimes maintain “real” profiles puts activist leaders at risk. And dictators have figured out how they can use Facebook to monitor activist networks and entrap democracy advocates.

But since the security services in Syria, Iran, and China now use Facebook to monitor and entrap activists, public trust in Facebook may be misplaced. Rather than allow Facebook to serve authoritarian interests, if nationalized in the United States, we could make Facebook change its identity policy to allow democracy activists living in dictatorships to use pseudonyms.