Every few years, a hoax pops up on Facebook claiming users can copy and paste a bit of legalese into a status update and protect their data from being harvested by Facebook. In September, one such hoax went viral, claiming users could pay "$5.99 to keep the subscription of your status to be set to 'private.'" Protection from Facebook's data scraping is obviously something its users wish they could buy.
I think about this every time I log into Facebook to be confronted with a suggestion to friend some guy I matched with on Tinder or a willpower-crushing ad for that pair of shoes I hovered over on Anthropologie’s website. Encounters like this can make you feel powerless, like we’re living in a world without control over the information companies like Facebook collect about us or how they'll use it.
So why do we put up with it?
“Why don’t we ever talk about taking over social media companies?,” David Banks, who studies public space and digital networks, asked last week on the blog Cyborgology. “We will boycott them, demand transparency measures, and even build entire alternative networks based on volunteer labor but no one ever seems to consider taking all the servers and data sets away from the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world and putting it all in the hands of the users.”
Why are we so hesitant, Banks asks, to demand control over our digital lives? What would it take to stage a user revolution?
In the past, sites like Diaspora and Ello have tried to challenge Facebook’s dictatorial grip on the social web. DuckDuckGo has launched a challenge to Google with the promise of being the search engine that doesn’t track you. But scores of users have not flocked to these alternatives. Instead, global Facebook users last quarter hit almost 1.5 billion.
Banks points out that we have been here before. In the U.S., services like the post, the railroad and the telephone were all eventually declared so important that the government decided to take them over or heavily regulate them. Since at least the emergence of Google’s dominance as a search engine, people have periodically called for treating Google, Facebook and other social media sites as utilities—services that have become so necessary that the government should be involved to ensure access to them for everyone.
“People’s language reflects that people are depending on Facebook just like they depended on the Internet a decade ago,” Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd wrote in 2012. “Facebook may not be at the scale of the Internet (or the Internet at the scale of electricity), but that doesn’t mean that it’s not angling to be a utility or quickly becoming one.”
But social networks, Banks writes, “have been remarkably good” at fighting off government involvement. (However, Facebook does have to undergo a privacy assessment every two years with the Federal Trade Commission.)
Those in favor of independent technology companies free of government involvement argue that these services are not truly necessary to our lives, that they are often and easily replaced by newer technologies, that it would stymy innovation, and that our data is the fee for using Facebook for free. Using Facebook, they say, is a choice.
It’s easy to imagine, though, a near future in which using Facebook doesn’t really seem like a choice — it’s already integrated into so many other services online, and into so many aspects of how we communicate, both online and off. And Facebook soon hopes to have everyone in the world using its service. After being left out of too many gatherings, one Facebook-less friend of mine recently caved and created a dummy account to send him e-mail alerts when he’s invited to events on Facebook.
Banks thinks a user revolt is unlikely — he suggests sites like Facebook and Google are already much too powerful to be toppled, their users too apathetic and uninformed.
“Not only are market forces too complicated to be regulated, so the argument goes, but the proprietary databases and algorithms used to make money only provide a competitive advantage if they remain secret,” he writes. “This leaves both would-be regulators and disgruntled users in an impossible position: the really useful technologies only seem economically or technically plausible if everything stays just the way that it is. No one outside of the owners of the technology know enough about it to impose democratic control.”
Banks, though, isn't proposing government control of Facebook and Google. Instead, he's interested in using public oversight to enact some form of democratic control, something akin to the citizen commissions that helped regulate early railroads by granting local citizens legal authority to do things like require new railroad lines or stops in certain towns. He suggests, for example, a lottery system where active users are selected to serve for six months each on a company’s committee.
We reached out to Facebook to ask what it thought of the idea, but the company did not respond to a request for comment. In 2012, Facebook briefly experimented with a democratic model, letting users vote on updates to the user agreement, before taking the right to vote away saying it wanted "a system that leads to more meaningful feedback and engagement." The company now has a public comment period on updates to its terms. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said last year that Facebook's focus "is creating private spaces for people to share things and have interactions that they couldn’t have had elsewhere."
Banks told me he was pessimistic that users would demand a citizen governance committee given that most Facebook users are probably unaware of Facebook's power. “Information about injustice is a necessary but rarely sufficient condition for spurring a social movement or a revolt,” he told me.
Facebook isn’t just powered by data. It is also powered by user apathy.