It’s time for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world to become irrelevant, instead. Even if they are cooperatives

Nathan Schneier, whom I like a lot, recently wrote on Vice that “It’s Time for Mark Zuckerberg to Give Up Control of Facebook””. I beg to strongly, but friendly and constructively differ on that issue.

Nathan starts from Zuckerberg’s own realization that “he can’t figure out by himself how to set standards of behavior for Facebook’s more than 2 billion monthly active users.” The other main points of the article are that (emphasis mine):

  1. Facebook — and others like it — need more appropriate structures of ownership and accountability
  2. Some well-placed rules might do a lot of good. But heavy regulation can also backfire.
  3. We might also consider whether governments, especially the ones we currently have, can be trusted to protect our personal data.
  4. Too rarely do [certain] proposals involve fundamentally changing how the platforms are owned and governed.
  5. We, its users, give Facebook value by acting like it is ours, by sharing our lives like it is ours. The nature of the company should reflect this.

I completely agree with Nathan on points 2 and 3. I disagree on the others, and the two kinds of solutions they propose. Especially the second type, which basically consists of keeping one global company, that is the same kind of global, centralized platform, just owned and governed by a cooperative of users:

“the company as a whole remains unified but individual Facebook users, together, wield significant ownership and governance powers. “

My own opinion is that this solution would be extremely hard to implement and govern, but above all intrinsically bad.

The governance of Associated Press (AP) presented as an example seems not applicable here to me. AP is a cooperative of professionals, or organizations of professionals. Social networking is a totally different field. It has become a de-facto synonim, if not the main channel in many parts of the world, of “basic free speech”. It’s about direct communications among ordinary individuals. Individuals who, in the overwhelming majority of cases, will have nothing close to the right combination of motivation, skills, time, wealth… to be effective members of a social networking cooperative.

In addition to that, the way to Hell is paved with good intentions, isn’t it? I believe that no single entity should make “content policy decisions for people around the [whole] world”. Not Zuckerberg, nor any very, very small subset of “cooperative members”.

Because, no matter how you try to regulate it, a unified global coop for social networking is likely (way, way too likely, in my opinion) to bring to global “free speech” and public discourse the same issues that today plague Wikipedia: the few with enough broadband, time and skills to keep the whole boat go where they want rule, the masses follow suit. No, thanks. There are too many unintended consequences in that direction

And if you rightly pointed out that global free speech and public opinion are already “regulated” by a very small elite anyway, that’s even more reasons for me to not replicate the same problem, jut because it’s wrapped in a nice cooperative.

Federation, instead? OK, but at the right level

NO, It's NOT "Time for Mark Zuckerberg to Give Up Control of Facebook" /img/facebook-so-what.jpg
The only way to deal with Facebook is to make GLOBAL PLATFORMS unnecessary in the first place.

The other proposal by Nathan is to replace Facebook with “an association of diverse, interoperable social networks among which users could choose. The central company would act as a kind of franchiser, managing the core technology and underlying infrastructure”.

Much better than the global coop thing, but still not enough. I have two observations about this approach. The first is that what needs reorganizing is not Facebook, but social networking as a whole, that is that whole public utility that todays is a “market” artificially, uselessly fragmented into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc.. just for profit.

The second observation is that, in my opinion, this won’t work unless it is 100% built around individuals. Unless, that is, the “core technology”:

  1. is built around giving each individual at least one permanent, personal website with its own permanent name=address, e.g. name-surname.com
  2. makes all such websites able to directly communicate with each other
  3. runs on “networks to choose” that are mere, totally unterchangeable, dumb hosts of such websites.

Why? To begin with, this would be the only way to give each individual real freedom and data portability. Second, it would hugely, hugely simplify the whole “governance” problem. If every individual is “master” of her own, fully portable website, the host has nothing more to govern than any provider of standard blog hosting already has. And of course that “host” may very well be a cooperative, why not? Even, or especially, a cooperative of which that individual is NOT a member at all, just a customer. In other words: federation, not users cooperatives, is the only way to put “global governance” where it belongs, that is national and international laws.

In my opinion, this architecture is the only one that really matches human nature, really respects individual rights, and avoids certain discrimination and abuses. This is a solution that does not require Zuckerberg to give up Facebook. Because it makes any platform like Facebook obsolete.

My own, personal proposal for doing things this way is here and almost all its points are also discussed in the (partially overlapping) percloud, mastodon and facebook sections of this website. A proposal for building collaborative platforms for specific groups, instead, is being separately developed by the Free Knowledge Institute, of which I am a Board Member.