Why do you still propose to regulate, break or clone Facebook, Google & C.?
In the last months, I have seen several experts suggest three kinds of solutions to the problems created by today’s social networks. Here I suggest, again, that those solutions are wrong, and then make a request.
The problem I care about
Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Gmail and other Google services… are already creating serious problems worldwide in fields like privacy, political polarization, free speech and consumer discrimination. These are the solutions that I consider wrong:
- SOLUTION 1 is any variant of “let’s make Facebook transparent, by regulating and veryfing its algorithms”
- SOLUTION 2 is the vanilla antitrust, “break them up” route. Here are some examples by:
- Scott Galloway: “we must break up companies like Facebok and Google”.
- Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry “the US government must do to the social media firms what it did to Standard Oil in 1911”
- Tim Wu, author of the “net neutrality” phrase: “it’s time to break up Facebook, starting with WhatsApp and Instagram”
- US advocacy groups: the FTC should “force Facebook to sell Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger to create competition”
- SOLUTION 3 consists of treating private people’s data as public good, possibly managed by governments:
- Mariana Mazzucato says “Let’s make private data into a public good”
- Evgeny Morozov proposes that “all consumer data is stored by the government, regulated by law. Companies that wish to use the data can apply for permission and can pay.”
- Ethan Zuckerman called for a “Taxpayer-Supported Version of Facebook” that “would have the civic mission of providing us a diverse and global view of the world.”
What is wrong with those solutions
Depending on how they are actually implemented, all those solutions present some combination of these characteristics:
- uselessly complicated (when they are feasible in the first place)
- dangerous, ineffective or not working as intended anyway
“SOLUTION 1” is structurally impossible to satisfy, on any centralized platform like Facebook. I explained why here.
Solution 2 is, as they say, “not even wrong”, in several ways. Politically, it is just naive: “we Americans created a problem for the whole world, now please trust us alone to solve it”.
Forcing Facebook to sell Instagram, or Google to sell Gmail, may be as effective as forcing Walmart to sell, as ONE company, the food part of its business. Food-only monopolists do not compete with non-food monopolists. They may not exchange customer data anymore (good luck with that), but what you get is two monopolies, instead of one, side by side in the same shopping malls. In general, you will accomplish very little by splitting non-interchangeable services, aimed at different demographics. Theoretically, yes, this could diminish aggregation of data. In practice, it may make even harder to control a landscape that has already reached “peak complexity” in data management.
If Solution 2 is half naive, half ineffective, Solution 3 just gives me the creeps. All it does is replace corporations with governments. The potential for abuse, censorship and so on is all still there, just worst. Thanks, but NO thanks.
The truth is that it does not matter who runs the show, or how many shows there are: solutions 2 and 3 merely replace really troublesome social media services with one or more instances of the same architecture that made those services troublesome in the first place.
Breaking up tobacco companies in smaller companies does not make their cigarettes any less carcinogenic.
This is why those solutions are useless. This, and the fact that much better architectures are feasible today. At this moment in time, forcing Facebook or Google to break up makes as much sense as forcing a mimeograph maker to break up, instead of making laser printers accessible to everybody.
Even projects to “transfer data directly from one service to another”, like the one recently announced by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft, may do little more than facilitate the transfer from one Big Brother to another.
All this brings us to decentralization, that is to elitism, equal opportunities and effectiveness.
Decentralization? Yes, but for whom?
The executive summary of the first part of this post is very simple: data concentration must not happen in the first place. Complete decentralization is the way to go. While we are at this, let me remind an extra, often overlooked but huge advantage of real decentralization: it puts free speech issues, and governance in general, back where they belong, and should have always remained: in courts of law. For details, see slides 8 to 11 of this talk.
So, instead of private data, let’s make a public good of privacy and decentralization. In the right way, of course.
There are a lot of ongoing projects aiming to develop really personal servers, that give their users the same services as Facebook & C… while keeping all their data in an always-on personal server at home (1). I wish those projects luck, but the reality is that they all share this limit:
No human being in that picture (or, for that matter, most senior citizens worldwide) has the “infrastructure” and skills to run their personal, always-on server. But you can bet everything you have that most of those same people do have a Facebook or WhatsApp account. Because it is the only way they have to stay in contact with family, friends and even job opportunities, even if they have no permanent address. Any real alternative to Facebook must be just as accessible.
Solutions based on physical servers are unavoidably elitist, besides likely wasting way more energy and raw materials than traditional datacenters, in the worst possible moment. But there is more: in this and any other case where general communication is concerned, such solutions may also be much, much less useful than advertised. Ditto for any system requiring more skills and dedication than setting up a Facebook or Gmail account, or not (also) immediately interoperable with today’s WWW, email and other Internet services. You may trust Dilbert on this…
or read Benjamin Mako Hill explaining that “Google Has Most of My Email Because It Has All of Yours”.
The kind of solution I care about
I am deeply convinced that the world needs, as soon as possible, a really viable, quick and dirty alternative to services like Facebook, Gmail, WhatsApp, Google Drive, Twitter, Flickr… I am equally convinced that the classes of solutions above cannot provide that quickly and widely enough to make a difference. I believe that the first, if intermediate solution should be as similar as possible to this proposal I made in 2012 / 2013 (regardless of who builds it. Seriously)
Of all the concepts and projects I know in this space, those that seem to me the best building blocks for such a solution are:
- Rufus Pollock’s proposal to break up NOT the companies, but ONLY the “algorithms and protocols on which these companies run”, and the barriers for all users, competitors and innovators to “have universal, equitable access to the platforms”. A much simpler way to achieve the same effect may be this
- Solid and Inrupt, by Tim Berners-Lee, but above all the Indienet project, as tested in Ghent by Aral Balkan and others
Regardless of who does it and how, this is where public and private funding and other resources should go: to support development and maintenance of Free/Open Source Software that makes it possible for everybody to offer personal clouds as a service. Oh, and please do NOT expect any costs to be paid by…
“Selling data”? Hmm…
Everybody should have full control of their data. Sure. The idea of people finally empowered to sell their data, for pure profit or to pay for hosting or other personalized services, instead, makes me quite uncomfortable:
- should one’s “intimate digital assets” be usable as merchantise to bargain for essential services as privacy protection, or health insurance? Call me weird, but this feels a bit too similar to legalize buying food with sex performances (or offering discounts when paying with sex) for my comfort
- more avenues for discrimination and inequality: people with more education and money will have, in general, more data to sell, and more valuable, than others. So they may get better deals than poorer people, even on essential services and more often than today, exactly because they are richer (in data).
Disclosure, and the final request
It should be blatantly obvious, at this point, that I am available to speak, write or otherwise work on these topics. Just email me. But this has always been the case. The real reason for this specific post is to ask all the experts I have mentioned, and everybody else proposing the same solutions, to carefully re-evaluate them. Of course, any feedback by them or anybody else is very, very welcome!
- as far as we are concerned here, it makes no difference at all if one’s data are in her own physical server at home, or scattered/mirrored across the physical servers of some p2p network. A really scalable solution must work even when most users cannot contribute physical servers to the network.
- NO, smartphones simply cannot be decent hosts for really personal servers and data. It is just idiotic to use something that runs on battery and may fall, be stolen, seized by guards or fried by spilled coffee any minute as THE main storage of all your data and services:
- Server = 24x7x365 uptime != “app on smartphone”
- Privacy = (see here = carry as little personal data in your phone as possible
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