The Face(book) of Big Brother

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walks at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California

Imagine that Jimmy Wales and the other good people who built Wikipedia had also created a free, non-commercial version of Facebook; call it Wikiface. People could use it to stay in touch with family and friends, to pass along items that they found interesting, and create networks of common interest.

But there would be no commercial exploitation of people’s data, no political use of data other than voluntary self-directed groups, and limits to using artificially amplified posts for orchestrated hype. Nobody would get filthy rich from selling your confidential information. Just as Wikipedia is policed for accuracy and for abuses, by a kind of peer-review, so would be this new nonprofit social medium.

This was the original dream of social media. There have been a few halting attempts to create nonprofit social networking platforms, but they have gained little traction.  A for-profit competitor to Facebook called MeWe emphasizes total privacy and makes its money by offering optional services. MeWe, according to CEO Mark Weinstein, just passed the million-member mark.

But Facebook totally dominates. “People don’t appreciate that Facebook is a data company, not a social network,” says Weinstein. “Its members are not customers to serve, its members are products to sell. Every decision made is a data decision.”

Facebook “privacy” settings merely restrict the access of the general public to your Facebook feed. They do not alter Facebook’s own unlimited freedom to monitor, sort, package and sell your data—and sell you out.

(Conversely, imagine if Mark Zuckerberg and his crew of predators had gotten to the universal free encyclopedia project before Wikipedia did. Searches would still be “free,” but the trail of your research would be fair game for marketers, politicians, spies, cops, and worse.)

Social media, with a few exceptions, have morphed into a realm of near-total toxicity. They rip off our desire to be connected. They amplify our most tawdry self-promotion impulses. They magnify a poisonous descent into tribalism at the expense of democracy. Our democracy is further debased by the use of social media to create micro-targeted negative ads, not to mention entire fake organizations.

They also intensify our obsession with screens, to the detriment of real social competence, beginning with two-year-olds. While they steal our privacy for pseudo-networking and commercial gain, they purloin the work of true providers of content like newspapers, threatening their very financial existence.

At bottom, they have been invaders of privacy far more insidious than the NSA or the CIA. In the latest New Yorker, David Remnick aptly quotes the novelist and critic John Lanchester, who termed Facebook, “the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind.”

And it’s not just Facebook. The entire model of 21st-century American capitalism is based on the premise that almost anything you do online is fair game to be harvested, “curated,” and sold. Buy something from one of the Fortune 1000 companies, and that information goes right back into the master file.

Liberals and conservative libertarians have long been wary of Big Brother—snooping by government. But in the Facebook era, Big Brother is the private, social-media sector.

All of this was at a simmer before Facebook turned out to be a prime enabler Russian hacking of the 2016 election, with an assist from Cambridge Analytica and associates of Donald Trump. That episode, with the full complicity of Facebook, breached the data of some 50 million users.

And Mark Zuckerberg, in damage-control mode, still has the nerve to piously describe all this as “building global community.”

About the only good thing about this latest twist is that it elevates the smarmy Zuckerberg to one of America’s Most Loathed, and shines a more intense critical spotlight on Facebook’s doings—and opens the door to serious regulation. In an era of hyper-partisanship, one of the few things Republicans and Democrats seem to be able to agree on is that Zuckerberg is a sanctimonious and hypocritical con man. (How fitting that the two bookends of this era are Zuckerberg and Trump.)

Events are moving so fast, and public opinion is so rapidly shifting against Facebook, that Zuckerberg, who has long resisted demands that he put his house in order, is now fairly begging to be allowed to be self-police. He told CNN last week that he’d be open to some form of regulation.

We should not trust Facebook self-policing for one instant. But what would a public regulatory regime look like? The question becomes more complicated as we witness the tangled intersection of privacy concerns with national security concerns.

The Federal Trade Commission has authority that it has mostly failed to use. In 2011, the FTC went after Facebook for failing to keep its privacy commitments. The company allowed third party clients to mine data not just of Facebook users, but of their “friends.” This is basically what happened, on a far larger scale—with Cambridge Analytica.

The FTC has opened an investigation, and in theory could fine Facebook $40,000 for each violation of the privacy rights of the 50 million people whose privacy was breached in that debacle—enough to put Facebook out of business.

In an era of hyper-partisanship, the revulsion against Facebook might yield a window of cross-partisan progress. Republicans don’t like regulation and liked the results of the hacking in 2016—but they like Mark Zuckerberg even less. Tougher regulation was resisted by the Obama administration. But Democrats, who tend to cut Silicon Valley donors a lot of slack, are plainly disgusted.

Last week, Facebook stock plunged, cutting its total value by $58 billion. It’s still worth $476 billion, more than the GDP of most countries. We can expect a massive Facebook counter-offensive, with the usual pious blarney, plus gazillions of dollars of campaign contributions.

This is the cyber equivalent of March for our Lives versus the NRA. Only an army of outraged citizens can face down the billions that Facebook has to buy politicians.

Proposed legislation to require greater disclosure of Facebook ads is sponsored jointly by Democrats Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner and Republican John McCain. This is just a start, and Klobuchar has already said she wants to go further.

A better approach is the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which takes effect May 25. GDPR basically requires far more disclosure, and tries to restrict invasions of privacy, not just by Facebook, but by Big Data in general.

Skeptics worry that Facebook will find workarounds that preserve its basic ability to tabulate and sell users’ data. But Europe, unlike the U.S., has a robust privacy lobby that includes many EU member governments. And if Facebook and the gang try to game the system, regulation will likely be toughened.

A good start in the U.S. would be drastic fines by the FTC for data breaches enabled or tolerated by Facebook. We also need to enforce the anti-trust laws. Part of Facebook’s business model is to snap up potential rivals that might threaten its network dominance, like Instagram (a billion) and WhatsApp ($19 billion). It’s preposterous that these acquisitions have been allowed.

Yes, some uses of Facebook are valid and valuable. The successful West Virginia teachers’ strike relied heavily on Facebook, as do many legitimate affinity groups.

But uses like these are totally consistent with the prohibition of commercial sale of users’ data.

An even tougher question is the regulation of Facebook and company for national security purposes. When Facebook becomes an enabler of Putin’s efforts to destroy American democracy, what’s the right remedy?

It’s bad enough that Facebook invades our privacy.  Do we want Facebook collaborating with the NSA, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to protect us from Russian troll farms—and at the same time passing along data on us?

Who do we trust less—Zuckerberg or the government spy agencies? Who watches the watchers? This dilemma takes the privacy/security conundrum to a whole new level. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat on the subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, told me, “This is terra incognita.”

It is indeed, but at least public opinion is shifting and legislators are beginning to ask the right questions. If Facebook is prohibited from treating our personal data as a commodity at all, that also short circuits Facebook’s ability to sell it to Putin or to Trump. Clamp down on the commercial abuses of Big Data, and we can back to the task of protecting ourselves from government snooping.

An earlier version of this article appeared at The Huffington Post. Subscribe here.

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