Rebecca MacKinnon has an article at Foreign Policy called "Ruling Facebookistan" where she criticizes what she sees as various undemocratic features of Facebook.
I began writing about the problem of Facebook authoritarianism years ago in 2008, in noting first and foremost that we are "not 69 million of anything" -- we are not a country because it's not freely elected. I also flagged the troubling meglomania of Mark Zuckerberg, who believes that in connecting everbody on Facebook, his job essentially is to "build tools" on top of this for them to "make the world better" -- and he thinks Facebook ends terrorism by making people more empathetic when they connect (a hugely unproven and even sinister thesis). We're no more free and no more of a country now that there are 950 million of us -- but the answer is merely to have a market in such services so there is pluralism, not to try to smuggle in the "progressive" agenda to overthrow Facebook so as to rule the world better with a social media network.
Two years ago, I wrote about how Facebook has serious governance problems precisely because it is under a TOS that it doesn't enforce, and hides behind the "common carrier" status to avoid taking responsibility for speech and governance in general. But the reality is, there is no court ruling or law that enables anyone to take Facebook as a "country" in any form. The landmark cases in recent years mitigate against it. As I wrote:
Silicon Valley titans have been able to elude such an analogy with "corporate towns" with the 2009 case of Estavillo v. Sony, when a user sued the PS3 gaming network for expelling him on free-speech grounds. The judge said the network “does not serve a substantial portion of a municipality's functions, but rather serves solely as a forum for people to interact subject to specific contractual terms."
The moral of the story is that you will need US government regulation to enforce the First Amendment and also the Supreme Court ruling that bars "incitement to imminent violence." But MacKinnon would hate more government regulation, and government-forced First Amendment rights turn private corporations into arms of the state, paradoxically.
In thinking about this subject for many years, I've concluded that only a free market in varying First-Amendment level (and below) services is what will work, coupled with increased options for user control of the environment for their speech. Don't like somebody's hate speech? Don't make them your friend, you know? Don't like a hate group? If it incites violence or discrimination, abuse report it avidly and try to get it removed.
MacKinnon always and everywhere seeks government and public action in the interests of the "progressive" agenda she represents. But as I indicate in my comments on the article, it's basically once again about packing the agenda first in a wrap of concern about Chinese dissidents and the awfulness of the Chinese regime in censorship them, then smuggling in the sandwich meat of the real radical cause, that celebrates Palestinian activists and insists on pseudonyms and interoperability (collectivism) so that the revolution can have more sway over the masses. No thanks!
Re: "It may not be able to tax or jail its inhabitants, but its executives, programmers, and engineers do exercise a form of governance over people's online activities and identities."
The more operative point to make here is that Facebookistan is *not a country*. The 900 million people here have not agreed to join together; they are arbitrarily joined together merely as data in a data base. They are all individuals in the physical world with civil rights, for better or worse, in their own countries. They also have an international legal system to claim rights through the UN. The idea that Facebook is a "country" is romantic, but not actualized because there are no free elections and no independent judiciary let alone representative democratic parliament.
As the executives accurately point out, their abuse-report system is automatic. And when enough abuse-reports come in, even by untrustworthy parties not acting in good faith like the Chinese government, their system reacts, and only manual overrides -- prompted by things like the open letter from the Taiwanese -- can restore justice. It's the lack of due process in the Facebookistan "justice system" that is the worst problem.
But that problem emerges from what MacKinnon herself unquestioningly celebrates in her book, in her validation of the notion of an "Internet commons" which privileges engineers, coders, and platform providers and their ideas of what governance and justice should constitute. She should start first by condemning "code as law" rather than celebrating it as "community" and accept that pluralism and multiple systems and perspectives in the aggregate are what make the commons, not the open source cult and its authoritarian methods.
MacKinnon is worried about activists of her choice having problems on Facebook. But the problems are larger and affect all of us. Just now I tried to respond with a long comment to a long post made by Pavel Durov, head of Russia's vkontakte.ru on his ideas for improving Russian society. Facebook warned me that my comment could be viewed as spam and told me to review it before posting it. Any comment that is long gets that interruption and even blockage. Worse, Facebook pops up arbitrarily, apparently based on key words, and tells me that I might reconsider making a comment, or it won't print a comment, if it thinks it isn't "constructive". How does this *machine* decide what is "constructive" and who elected it to make such decisions anyway?! If my comment contains words that Facebook judges inappropriate, perhaps "breast" even if the discussion is about breast-feeding -- not even pictures, but words -- it will block me. Facebook should cease all that net-nannying; it already has the ability for people to mute comments or defriend people who are disliked; that's all that is required.
I have serious doubts about a censorship site run by a Palestinian activist. Given everything we've seen on the Internet from the Palestinian cause, that could involve a very biased agenda and I wonder if we can trust it to be run fairly. I wonder if the link to One World Freedom was removed because of incitement of hate and violence? Since MacKinnon also chastises Apple for in fact rightly removing the violent "intifada" app from the app store, I have to ask this question.
As for MacKinnon's oft-made request to impose on Facebook the anonymity that she feels is required for the world's various revolutionary movements, I can only say: those who want to have large groups and huge friendship lists can't expect to avoid accountability forever by using nicknames; whatever the very real concerns they have about government oppression. Those who need to conduct sensitive human rights work don't need 5,000 friends or 100,000 people in a group; they have gmail. Figures like Sakharov and Mandela and Havel never used pseudonyms, they took the risk and rewards of using their own names. There are other services from Twitter to Blogspot where you can use pseudonyms and collect friends, and that can be used.
Accepting pseudonyms on Facebook, far from creating freedom, creates unfreedom by subjecting those people who use their real names to attacks by Anonymous, the e-thugs, and all kinds of sock-puppets, haters, spammers, etc. Identity helps create accountability. While it can't always be used, then the answer is still to require real-name sign-ups and then the use of a pseudonym shell. But that isn't what the revolutionaries will accept. The answer to this problem is not to impose standards of revolutionary zeal on platforms, but in a free market of goods and services, and to create alternatives. Create an anonymous network platform, and see who shows up! Oh, I hear Anonymous is making one. Maybe you'd find that useful.
MacKinnon is right to flag how phony the Facebook "democracy" is and the 30 percent "advisory" rule. It's impossible in a setting where there are 900 million people using the platform mainly for socializing with close family and friends to demand that they "get educated" on a vote, pay attention to a vote, and vote. So again, the answer is to *go make the alternative you seek and see who shows up* instead of banging on this commercial service to do this or that point on your agenda.
Facebook didn't hide the polling station; they're just not a freely and fairly elected parliament. If you want social media to be democratic, you first have to make the institutions that can lead to those results. But there aren't world parliaments for good reason -- authoritarian countries get a vote and then democracy is watered down as it is at the UN. I'm not interested in making a parliament with 900 million people; any such entity would enable the coders to win, not authentic democratic movements.
Interoperability should not be forced. It's just an excuse -- again -- to force the collectivist notion of the Internet and not allow freedom of association for companies which is vital to freedom and which enabled these innovative services in the first place. Walled gardens are a good thing, contrary to the geek sectarian belief about how the Internet should be run. Facebook has 900 million members and is growing constantly mainly because people are happy with it as indeed a walled garden where every passing Scoble can't grab 5,000 "friends" who didn't give permission to him to do so and port all their data to other platforms of his choice. If I need to talk to a friend on Google Plus, I can join Google Plus, interop is not required. Interop is also a fake agenda that hides the ulterior motive of trying to bring all platforms under the power of those with a certain ideology about how the Internet should run. There's no need to enforce this "harmony" as the Internet's strength comes in pluralism.
The Internet as a system may be a utility; the platforms built on top of it are not. There has to be freedom of expression and freedom of association for the companies that invest treasure and talent into building services and communities, and not merely freedom for those who want to take over the Internet with their agenda.
Facebook has to be closed in order to make a profit. Capitalism is okay; if you want socialism, build a socialist platform rather than destroying the capitalist ones. Eventually Google will have to allow advertising on G+ -- go bang on them, as they have a system Ad Sense that in fact we should all be allowed to embed into our G+ pages so that the Internet doesn't just bring wealth to a few tycoons in Silicon Valley.
So once again, under the guise of "Internet Freedom" and beginning with legitimate concern about how the Chinese governments censors, MacKinnon ends by smuggling in the "progressive" agenda -- boosting radical Palestinians and flogging socialist models out of the EU bureaucracy. No thanks!