The New Gatekeepers

Could we build the Facebook-era equivalent of public broadcasting?

April 5, 2018

As Mark Zuckerberg continues his 2018 apology tour by admitting that Cambridge Analytica may have illicitly acquired personal data on as many as 87 million Facebook users, instead of the previous estimate of 50 million, the chorus of voices saying we need to reject the social network (the #DeleteFacebook movement) grows louder. In a New York Times opinion piece published Wednesday, Columbia law professor and author Tim Wu recommends a different course—that we build an alternative to Facebook, or possibly multiple alternatives. Fixing it isn’t an option, he says:

Every business has its founding DNA. Real corporate change is rare, especially when the same leaders remain in charge. In Facebook’s case, we are not speaking of a few missteps here and there, the misbehavior of a few aberrant employees. The problems are central and structural, the predicted consequences of its business model. From the day it first sought revenue, Facebook prioritized growth over any other possible goal.

The solution, Wu says, is to figure out how to replace the social network with models that aren’t built on massive, ad-driven user surveillance. And what would that look like? He says it could be a network that provides the same opportunity for social connection and media sharing as Facebook, but instead of having their data harvested for advertising, users would pay a fee. Or it might be possible to create a non-profit, an entity that wouldn’t be driven by the need to sell its targeting abilities to brands (presumably it would have to have some kind of code of conduct and agree to be bound by those principles).

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Wu says the problem with Facebook is that it suffers from the same problem that journalist Walter Lippmann complained about in 1959 with respect to television, namely that it was ultimately “the creature, the servant and indeed the prostitute of merchandizing.” Those kinds of sentiments led to the creation of the American public broadcasting system. Would it be possible to build the equivalent for the Facebook era? It’s an intriguing idea. Could public funding, donations, and other mechanisms be used to support something like PBS but for social networking?

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The biggest hurdle, as Wu notes, are the network effects that Facebook now enjoys by having two billion people attached to its platform every day. If you want to remain connected to friends and family members, you almost have to be on it, because everyone else is. Would an alternative be as attractive, even if it didn’t harvest your data, especially if it required you to pay a monthly fee? For some, perhaps. But for enough people to make it practical? It seems unlikely. But then, public broadcasting probably seemed like a moonshot in its day, too.

One crucial step required for that future are regulations requiring some form of data portability or federation between Facebook and these alternative networks, to lower the barrier to people moving from one to the other. Ironically, data-protection regulations implemented in the wake of Facebook’s data leak could actually make doing this harder rather than easier. As Wu puts it: “If today’s privacy scandals lead us merely to install Facebook as a regulated monopolist, insulated from competition, we will have failed completely.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.