Social networks should be publicly owned

Now, a headline like this might get a lot of eyes rolling and tech libertarians might use it to argue that “socialists have gone mad”. It is also not a new concept, and several arguments — some of them in jest — have been put forward to defend the idea of “nationalising Facebook”. However, I’d like to discuss some of them in a completely serious fashion, looking at the labour, profit and decision making aspects of social networks, and show why we need to demand a social network that belongs to the people, for the people.

We are the content producers

Jen gets woken up in the morning by her phone’s alarm. She instantly unlocks it and opens Facebook. Even though her vision is still a tad blurry, she scrolls instinctively down her feed, stopping every now and again when her sleepy mind focuses on some interesting images. She checks one of her pages that she set up for funny and topical content, and notices that a meme she created last night has earned a lot of reactions.

In her feed, she finds an interesting article about a superconducting material set to improve performance of electric motors. As that’s actually one of her areas of expertise, she shares it with her followers with a brief comment explaining a couple things in more detail. After running to the bathroom to take a quick shower, she opens up a recipe a friend of her’s posted on her feed she wanted to try for breakfast. With her stomach feeling content, she leaves her flat in a hurry so that her students at the local university won’t get angry that she’s late.

Facebook is a free social network that allows us to share content with other people. This content can range from links to articles, original content like memes, photography and drawings, to comments and rants about political topics. Nobody needs to pay for access to this tool as Facebook is a business that earns money from advertising and processing user data. The more pages you “like”, the more content you share, the more Facebook knows what sort of person you are, and what sort of products and services you would be interested in. What’s more, by analysing aggregated data it can even make accurate assumptions about certain groups of people. The more data it has, the more efficient and precise it is in targeting users.

However nobody would go on Facebook if it was just a bunch of ads. People around the world go to the website to view thousands of pieces of content, all shared by its users. Zuckerberg gives us a tool we can use to share posts, and in return we do all the work of providing the content. Pages run by companies notwithstanding, which can technically be treated as another form of advertising, nearly everything on Facebook has been published by the people using the social network.

There have been a few fake rumours in the past claiming that access to Facebook might cost money, however the majority of people are aware of the huge profit the business is making. This might seem like a fair deal: the company provides us with a free tool, maintains it and improves it, and in return we are exposed to some ads that we are not obliged to click on. But here’s the thing — you wouldn’t be getting this for free if it wasn’t profitable for Facebook. And believe me, it is very profitable.

Applying Marxist thought, we can compare users to “workers”, who by using the “means of production” (the social network), produce value that is a lot higher than the cost incurred by Facebook (development, maintenance, infrastructure etc.). They then get “paid” with free access to the tool. Just as it is the case in a capitalist society, these workers have no say regarding the surplus value they produce. They have no access to it, and can’t decide what is it going to be used for, whether it’s for building new offices, bonuses, or paying for Zuckerberg’s ridiculously expensive house.

Of course, someone can come and say: “But I have an ad-blocker installed in my browser, so Facebook is not making any money on me as I am not exposed to any advertising”. Well, that’s not the full picture. Any interaction, any view, any like, any click you make on Facebook is valuable data that can be used to target other people. You are working for Facebook by both creating content and consuming it, and you are not payed a single penny for it. Considering the above, one could even argue that Facebook should pay us for using their service.

Big business are very eager to get their hands on our data, because aggregated user activity can be exploited in a plethora of ways. By the means of data mining and machine learning, many predictions can be made that can affect us in negative ways. Aggressive ad targeting, data brokering, and even discrimination. As the Electronic Privacy Information Center pointed out, in its comments to the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy:

The use of predictive analytics by the public and private sector (…) can now be used by the government and companies to make determinations about our ability to fly, to obtain a job, a clearance or a credit card. The use of our associations in predictive analytics to make decisions that have a negative impact on individuals directly inhibits freedom of association.

Social network feudalism

The time we spend on social networks constantly increases. In United States, people spend an average of 50 minutes on Facebook every single day, and that number is constantly increasing. Considering there’s currently 2.19 billion monthly active users², that’s a lot of time that generates a huge amount of data.

The importance of and reliance on social networks increases as well. Twitter seems to be a very efficient way of complaining to companies about problems you’re having with their products, and is also a platform where you can get the latest news quicker than using other services, especially when it comes to crucial alerts like tube suspensions or national disasters. The main social media platforms are de facto the main means of communicating and participating in sociopolitical aspects of our society, whether it is raising awareness about important topics, talking directly with politicians or supporting certain ideas and demands. Banning users takes them away from their social environment, which could be compared with being forced to move to another city.

Social networks are becoming a huge part of our lives, but unfortunately it’s a very undemocratic one. Facebook, Twitter, and other major networks are not democracies; structurally, they look a lot more like monarchies, or oligarchical dictatorships.

Users have absolutely no say regarding how the companies are run, what features should be implemented, what sort of content should and should not be allowed to be published, and so on. If you want a change, you need to hope that enough people agree with you and put enough pressure on the company, like a mob armed with torches and pitchforks in front of a manor, that its owner “benevolently” agrees to comply with your requests. I will not waste time explaining the undemocratic nature of the idea of relying on free market when it comes to these things, but I believe that this is not a good way of demanding and achieving change.

But even the pitchforks are sometimes futile when fighting for change. The Facebook real-name policy controversy is a perfect example. Despite multiple groups demanding the company to alter their policy, including Native Americans and the LGBTQ+ community, Facebook did nothing to address the issue. As a consequence of this policy, trans people are forced to user their deadnames, and people with names not conforming with Western expectations have to modify their names to conform with often arbitrary rules.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks obviously need to adhere to local legislation and meet all conditions required by law. But other than that, even if certain rules disproportionately affect certain people, there is nothing forcing the company to change. One cannot, for instance, elect a representative that would help change certain rules governing the website. Any change to the social network will only be made if it is profitable. Nobody in the company’s management is accountable to you.

You get a free account and a free tool, but you don’t have full control and ownership over the content you create and publish on Facebook. As the terms and conditions specify, you grant the company a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free and worldwide licence to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate and create derivative works of your content”. In other words, they can do whatever they want with your content, provided it also meets the requirements specified in their privacy policy.

This obviously doesn’t mean that Mark Zuckerberg will use the picture of your dog Skittles on billboards in San Francisco, or include a poem you wrote in a radio ad. Moreover, upon request, Facebook will delete your account and all your published content. But selfies and Harry Potter fan-fiction isn’t what I’m concerned about. You have no control over the data that is derived from your content; and as we’ve learned from the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, such data can be used for malicious purposes.

While we transfer our rights to everything that on social networks brings profit — data and content, the main risks however that are related to social networks affect the users, and only indirectly the owners. Data misuse, online harassment, identity theft, deceitful advertising and outright scams — all of these issues affect people using Facebook or Twitter. Facebook might “try their best”, from a legal perspective, to protect their users, but we are the people who risk often major parts of our lives when using their tool. This follows a common theme employed by the followers of neoliberal thought, that shifts as much responsibility from the capitalist owners to the workers, and users of their services. A good example of this ideology is Uber (and the whole “gig-economy” in general), where the company doesn’t own most of the cars, who belong to the drivers, and even when it does, it “rents” them out. Moreover, since Uber lets their employees work “whenever they want”, any risk related to ill and unwell drivers nearly entirely vanishes.

We have no say in several things. If you don’t like something, the only choice you have is to leave. This may seem fine to the likes of libertarians, who, in response to complaints about working conditions usually say something along the lines of “just find a different job”, a piece of advice as valuable as saying “stop being poor”. But this is not satisfactory. There are core issues present in present social networks that we need to address.

Socialising social networks

The current advertising model of the internet is different from anything that came before. TV ads are selected around the shows that are broadcast live, trying to target a specific type of audience that might be watching it at that given moment. Newspaper ads, in a similar vein, are placed around topical articles to target potential customers. Social media ads, on the other hand, are incredibly targeted, using your preferences and prejudices. It’s extreme ad optimisation, where an advertiser has a guarantee that their ad will mostly be shown to people at least vaguely interested in what they are promoting.

Everything is done to keep users coming back and staying as long as possible. Although Zuckerberg has been boasting about trying to increase the “time well spent” on his site, he can’t win with the fact that his company needs to make profit to make the stakeholders happy; hence he cannot implement features that drastically reduce that profit. Facebook has announced earlier this year that they will be releasing a feature called “Watch Party”, that will allow people watch videos together with their friends. But adding new “fancy features” is simply a weak attempt at addressing the fundamental way social networks work.

A lot of people talk about social media addiction and what sort of effects it has on our mental health. Research is still ongoing, but several negative effects have been reported. Business-oriented social networks promote certain types of unhealthy behaviour that may be good for retention and traffic, but not so good for your mind. On the other hand, such tools can be used for good, by allowing people with mental health issues be heard, be part of a community, and get help from other people with similar conditions.

The phrase “time well spent” was “coined” by Joe Edelman, who wrote a piece entitled How to Design Social Systems (Without Causing Depression and War). He lists a lot of obstacles that people face when trying to use platforms like Facebook in a healthy, meaningful and productive way. He also describes the way he believes we could improve things and achieve a drastic change. But, if any changes are to be made, the question I keep bringing up is, what if the things that are required to change the status quo completely undermine and destroy the business model that social networks are run on?

Major social networks are business. Their main goal is to gain new users, keep them on the site as long as possible, and optimise their ads to the greatest extent possible. Improving the way we communicate, making it safe and accessible is a secondary matter, and only addressed if it can achieve the aforementioned goals. These social networks are run for profit. But should they be this way?

As discussed earlier, unlike on private TV channels, in subscription magazines and the like, we, the users, are the main content creators on social media. What Facebook, Twitter, and other companies give us is the means of communication — a service. What if this service becomes a public service just like public transport, healthcare and education?

National Social Media Service

Public services, when adequately funded and managed by the government, address many different needs of the public; their goal is to meet needs and remain sustainable, not to maximise profit. By focusing the service on the users, on making their voice heard, instead on web-traffic-increasing but meaningless interactions, we can have a tool that delivers on its original goal — improving the way we communicate.

Such service could also be devoid of advertising and shareholder influences. It costs Facebook roughly $1 per user per month to run its service³, a cost that could not only be easily handled by the government, but also reduced by relying on open-source code and contributions from volunteers. The source code could then be used in teaching, encouraging innovation and collective contribution.

Such goal could be achieved by banning for-profit social media businesses and/or taking them over, and embracing open standards and protocols like ActivityPub, that don’t tie users to one specific platform. The main, government offered network would be managed transparently by fully accountable staff, with decisions made in an entirely democratic manner and with the ability to contest any moderation-related decision on legal grounds. Any other social networks would need to adhere to regulation that forces them to respect the rights of their users with a big focus on privacy.

All the sufficiently anonymised data, which fully respects privacy, derived from user activity, would be publicly available and used to improve other public services, like public transport and healthcare.

Unfortunately such demands are quite utopian considering the current state of affairs. A “softer” approach would be an introduction of public supervisory boards, that would control the most important aspects of major social media businesses in a transparent and democratic manner. Their goal would be to guarantee that the privacy of their users is respected, that the business is not finances by undesirable entities, and so forth.

But even such solution cannot be implemented without reforming the government. The above ideas can seem shocking to people who are afraid of government surveillance, especially when considering the revelations of Edward Snowden and other whistleblowers. The concept I’ve presented could be seen as simply giving all our information directly to the government, and cutting the middle-man. Hence, with a corrupt capitalist government, and with no checks and balances, such solution is simply unfeasible. It can only work if we have a guarantee that our personal data is protected, and cannot be in any way used against us.

However, the truth of the matter is, that our personal data is even less protected when in the hand of a private company. Why is one afraid of government surveillance, but not of corporate surveillance? We are already heavily exploited by businesses because of the access to our data. We already have examples of private companies using such data to achieve political goals. The Edward Snowden revelations have shown that the NSA uses other means, not related to social media, to spy on its citizens, and the American government is not only allowed, but frequently uses its power to request personal user data from companies like Facebook. Thus, if the government is already corrupt, it makes no difference if social media is privately or publicly owned.

Moreover, social networks are never intended for secure, personal communication between two people; they were always about broadcasting information, either publicly or two a selected group (e.g. Facebook friends). So the only problem here could be blocking citizens from being able to post content, something that has happened countless times in regards to Facebook and Twitter. However, if protocols like ActivityPub are used as a base of the public service, it doesn’t matter if the service is blocked as one can simply use a different network to publish content in the same way, as the government hasn’t got monopoly when it comes to broadcasting posts. The whole of the internet would have to be blocked to prevent people from publishing content.

But, if our government hasn’t been reformed yet and we can’t yet fully trust it, what can we do in the meantime?

The anarchist influence

Around 2016, many people started getting fed up with the way Twitter was managed, and getting angry at certain decisions being made. Eugen Rochko was one of them, complaining about how the company started limiting 3rd party apps, and how it began using an algorithm-driven timeline that promotes certain content according to their business needs. Inspired by platforms like GNU social, he decided to start working on a new, non-profit and open-source platform called Mastodon.

Functionality wise, it is very similar to Twitter. It allows you to send “toots” (its cutely named version of “tweets”) within a 500 character limit, attach links, images and videos. You can also mark certain toots as private and only make them visible to certain people. Additionally, the interface takes into consideration a lot personal needs, allowing people to create spoiler alerts and trigger warnings for sensitive content. It also, by default, hides the “like” counter on posts. And all these features have been implemented entirely by the open-source community voluntarily contributing code for everyone to share. But the main difference between Mastodon and Twitter is that it is completely decentralised, and in result there isn’t just one Mastodon site: there are many federated instances.

What does this mean? As we know, there isn’t just one e-mail provider — there are many we can choose from. But this doesn’t mean that I can’t send an email from one provider to another: if I have an account on Gmail, there is nothing stopping me from writing a message to a friend who has a Hotmail account. We have standard e-mail protocols that any software can use, meaning that there isn’t a single company that “owns” email. Mastodon instances work in the same way. I happen to have an account on mastodon.social, which is the most popular instance, managed by Eugen himself. But I can still follow and interact with people from other instances, like mastodon.art, an instance dedicated to artists, or mastodon.technology, which, you’ve guessed it, caters to users interested in technology. There is an excellent video explaining this further.

This is possible thank to using the aforementioned protocol ActivityPub. It can be used by any software to read and publish content in a secure way, that is consumable by other networks. In other words, all instances use the same “language” and therefore can communicate with one another. This brings the internet back to its decentralised roots. Unfortunately, this is not the case with popular tools like Facebook and Twitter, where you need to “repost” content from one tool to another.

You can look at instances as “social media cooperatives”. Their only goal is to cater for a specific group of people, and not compete with other instances for profit, and nearly all of them are managed democratically. Moreover, since Mastodon is open-source, everyone can contribute to the source code, and create their own flavour of the tool if needed. I have easily contributed a few new features myself. This is a drastically different way of running social media services, compared to what the big players are doing. It many not address all of the problems we face (for instance, your data resides on a server that still usually belongs to a private entity), however it is a step in the right direction, that has potential to attack social media monopolies.

Our governments should look into supporting such initiatives, which move the ownership from big companies to its citizens. There could be, for example, a publicly owned instance that guarantees access to social media to all citizens, who can also choose to use alternative ones if they so desire. The government could also provide funding for several community owned instances, paying for servers and bandwidth, while the citizens managing it take care of content and appropriate moderation, and get to choose how they are run.

Our demands

We demand transparently and democratically managed, accountable social networks owned by the people, for the people. We demand to remove the ability to make profit and exploit the users of the tools we use on a daily basis. We demand services that addresses all accessibility needs, and considers how any features affect different groups, and providing us with adequate privacy. We demand tools that cannot be used to silence us and trample on freedom of speech, and promotes tolerance and inclusiveness, by also addressing hate speech and cyber-bullying. We demand full access to the sufficiently anonymised data derived from user activity, and for it to be used to improve other areas of our lives. We demand the full democratisation of social networks. Users of the social media world, unite!

¹Facebook’s annual revenue and net income from 2007 to 2017 at Statista
²Number of monthly active Facebook users worldwide as of 1st quarter 2018 (in millions) at
Statista
³Based on data from around 2012 included in the article
The Biggest Cost of Facebook’s Growth by Jessica Leber published on MIT Technology Review

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