Today, a former Washington Post publisher and Facebook board member rightly opposed requests “for the regulation of big technology companies”… but omitting a crucial point. In “Think very carefully before regulating speech”, Mr. Graham rightly observes that:
I have lived through more than one time when a president would have preferred that fewer people read news stories in The Washington Post. I would suggest that voters in any country approach the idea of regulating speech on Facebook and Google with extreme caution. Readers should make up their own minds whether to read the Financial Times and government should have no role in their decision.
The large technology companies must comply with laws that all companies must obey. They must pay their taxes. They must obey the antitrust laws and mustn't overcharge consumers. But when it comes to what stories they publish on Google News or Facebook, or whose advertisements they accept, governments should keep their hands off.
The only thing I really dislike in the statements above is that their author stopped there, without fully explaining the implicit suggestion they contain.
Important Note: what follows applies to any centralized, monolithic “platform” LIKE Facebook. Whoever runs it: governments, cooperatives, standard corporations… It makes no difference at all. In this post, “Facebook” is just an abbreviation for “ANY centralized, monolithic platform for general purpose social networking: Facebook, Google, whatever”.
To begin with, demanding “regulation”, external control or nationalization of Facebook does not simply mean, as Mr. Graham points out, asking for something that must not happen. It means asking for something that cannot happen, without creating many more problems than it would (theoretically!) solve. This is explained in detail in “No, sorry. Facebook CANNOT provide transparency”.
But there is a second, even more important point: even if it were possible to achieve it, asking for regulation, control etc.. of Facebook would still be pointless. It would be a waste of time and effort. It is pointless to “regulate” something when not only there are many good reasons, but also many practical ways to finally make it UNNECESSARY. Irrelevant. Obsolete.
Even this second point is present, albeit well hidden, in this statement by Mr Graham:
“Readers should make up their own minds whether to read the Financial Times and government should have no role in their decision.”
I do agree! The crucial thing that Mr. Graham did not explicitly write down is that there is NO NEED WHATSOEVER to pass through anything centralized like Facebook to decide whether to read the Financial Times, or everything else. Not anymore. You could already solve that problem giving up the first of these four bad online habits, but never mind. The core issue is that, in 2018, regulating speech and publishing via Facebook is, or in any case must become, like regulating speech and publishing via mimeographs:
I already said it: the fix for Facebook cannot be any other “Facebook-like” platform, regardless of who manages it, or how. The real solution is to create the conditions for everybody to have a permanent, personal “website” in which she can immediately receive and discuss news from any source, from newspapers to friends, without intermediaries. Do that, and “governance of social networks” goes back where it should have always stayed, as explained in slides 7 and 8 of this talk of mine. My own proposal for building those “websites” is here, but is not the only one. What matters is to not waste any more time regulating mimeographs.