While most U.S. citizens and most global citizens treat Facebook as their social network infrastructure, the firm is greatly understaffed: It has about 4,000 employees serving nearly 1 billion users. Facebook staffers—at least those in it for the social good, rather than the bonuses—might even welcome the move to nationalize. Currently, Facebook employees are tasked with discovering marketable trends, selling advertising, and doing data mining in the service of profit. Nationalizing Facebook would allow more resources to go into data mining for public health and social research.
Many academics are finding that big social network data sets can generate surprising and valuable information for addressing social problems—for instance, public health and national security. Researchers are working on ways to use social networking patterns to predict the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. We could even use Facebook data to analyze criminal networks in the United States or terrorist networks around the world. We'd want to be careful about the circumstances under which our security services had access to Facebook data, but if the firm had been nationalized, at least there could be some reasonable public oversight. And while academics have to meet ethical standards for protecting the people they study, Facebook has no such guidelines. Nationalization could allow us to review the ethical implications of their management decisions.
Facebook’s data harvesting could be used to improve public policy, yet scholars rarely find the company willing to collaborate on important research questions. Sometimes different scientists unknowingly buy access to the same data, and then duplicate efforts to clean the data for real analysis. A publicly accessible, central way of sharing data would allow better access for social and public health researchers. Or even better, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health could help manage a clearinghouse for data so that we can all be sure it is properly anonymized and research effort is not wasted. There would be economic benefits, too: As the venerable Economist magazine has argued, making large amounts of public data widely available stimulates creative new businesses ventures.
Users in some parts of the world might panic if Facebook becomes an official part of the U.S. government. But there are plenty of examples of good public investment in media and infrastructure. For instance, citizens around the world benefit from the BBC, and many governments use the public purse to support technology innovation and build up information infrastructure. The public policy benefits of scholarship with Facebook’s “big data” would spread around the world. Having occasional access to anonymous profiles would help democracy activists living in dictatorships. The high—and globally consistent—privacy standards that could be swiftly implemented after nationalization would be good for everyone.
Even though the benefits outweigh the risks, the idea of nationalizing Facebook is probably a nonstarter. At the very least, though, it is a great thought experiment and way of putting the privacy and data-mining issues front and center. It is not Facebook’s fault that the U.S. government has no national privacy standards, centralized privacy commissioner, or regulations about making good use of social data. For several years now, privacy advocates have tried to work with Facebook to improve its record, and academics have begged for better data access. Forcing regulators—and the company itself—to think about the ways in which its organizational behavior might serve the public interest should make it a better company.
Post-IPO, Facebook should serve its shareholders’ interests, and as a firm the company’s priority is making profit. Yet we should also work on ways to prompt the company to become a good player on privacy issues, help solve important social problems, and still turn a profit. Facebook is now public infrastructure, and it should be treated as such.
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.