by Peter M. Gunn
No one knows when the next Facebook redesign is going to come, but chances are you're going to hate it. And if you're on Twitter, you probably have opinions about the recent decision to excise third-party apps as well. There is always a sense of injustice when these autocratic changes are announced. The libertarians in the crowd will say "well if you don't like the service, stop using the product" (conveniently ignoring, of course, that in these companies' business models the user is the product). However, that assessment does not get at the root of the problem, which is that Facebook and Twitter are the new town square, but these services are also private for-profit institutions, who almost by definition, cannot be trusted with administering a public service. The solution, then, is to create a public one.
Now hold up, I know Silicon Valley gon' kill me, but let me finish.
The changes in communication brought about by the advent of these companies cannot be denied, but just because an idea originated in the private sector does not mean it should exclusively belong to the private sector. After all, firefighting started out as a commercial enterprise. If electronic communication is recognized as a public good, and I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to why it isn't, then the institutions that facilitate it should be public trusts. And while the idea of "government-run" social media may sound off-putting, citizens in this country would actually have greater privacy, security, and freedom of expression under public institutions than under private ones. Witness: the policies of Facebook and Twitter vs. those of the Post Office.
Currently, Facebook knows basically everything about you, including your facial characteristics, and can largely do whatever it damn wants with it, including selling your personal data possibly without your knowledge. (Facebook maintains that "We do not share your personal information with people or services you don't want," but of course Facebook "shares" it through increasingly deceptive practices. Ever click "Okay, Read Article"? Boom. The Washington Post just got your email address.) Facebook has this freedom because all it has to follow are the FTC Fair Trade Practice Principles, which are actually just recommendations about "notice, choice, access, security, and redress" and most companies get to self-regulate. Even with all this leeway though, Facebook still has drama with the FTC, recently reaching a settlement in which it admitted no wrongdoing, but still submitted to government audits.
Perhaps the biggest hesitancy, at least for me, to the idea of publicly run social media is the idea of giving our surveillance state direct access to all our communication, but flying in the face of neoliberal scare tactics, our rights would actually be more protected under a public institution than they are under the benevolent overlords of Facebook and Twitter. For example, Facebook has no responsibility to protect your First Amendment rights. Instead, it relies on a small group, sometimes overseas, to review everything flagged as offensive using sometimes arbitrary guidelines. The results can foster confusion, and lead to censorship. It's not necessarily deliberate, they have a lot of content to monitor, but is collateral damage ever an excuse? Meanwhile, this Postal Service has this to say about freedom of speech: " The Postal Service may not collect or maintain information describing how individuals exercise their rights protected by the First Amendment, unless the Postmaster General determines that the information is necessary to carry out a statutory purpose of the Postal Service." They're not even allowed to look at what you say. Rest assured that the placement of well-targeted ads is not a statutory purpose of the Postal Service.
When it comes to the Fourth Amendment, the distinction between social media companies and the Postal Service is equally great. If Twitter were run by the Postal Service, this Occupy Wall Street protestor's tweets would still belong to him and not the NYPD. See, social media companies are regulated by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which was passed way back in 1986 and says that law enforcement only needs a subpoena to make companies turn over electronic documents. So props to Twitter for fighting on behalf of their users, but there ultimately just isn't as much protection as there is with the Postal Service, which requires a warrant before the police/FBI can read anybody's mail. Also, if CISPA ever gets passed, look for the gap between social media companies and law enforcement to get even narrower.
Now, some would argue that such a step is not required, that we just need to better regulate these companies to protect users, but considering the money Google and Facebook already spend on lobbying, does anyone really think such regulations would not go the way of Dodd-Frank? Ultimately, it comes down to how much protection you think our speech deserves. The Postal Service bears a responsibility to the American people, social media companies only bear a responsibility to their shareholders/investors. Sure, the FBI and the CIA might open your mail, but at least when they do it it's illegal.
The defenders of capitalism like to imagine it as a democracy, where the state of the markets represents the will of the people. The lovers of the Internet like to characterize it as a powerfully democratic tool. The question is, what kind of democracy is it bringing us? Any service like the one I am describing would not exclude other private forms of communication, which indeed would be better suited for the revolutionary potential that social media offers, case in point: the Global Square. UPS and FedEx exist just fine alongside the Postal Service. The Internet is the last frontier for American enterprise, but it is also a resource developed by the government that belongs to the people. Attempts to keep the government "out of the Internet" are not made to preserve the freedom of the American people; they are made to advance the neoliberal project. Only this time, there's not even a state to dismantle.