Facebook now connects over two billion of the world’s people. They use it to share and promote their ideas among a potentially unlimited audience, keep up with the lives of their geographically dispersed families and old friends, make new friends and acquaintances, build small businesses, learn about people and parts of the world far from home, and organize political and social movements.
A network that connects that many of the world’s people is too powerful to be run as a private business, too necessary to be turned off, and too diverse and global to be regulated by one country alone. Facebook should be nationalized by the US government – and then quickly internationalized as a global, non-commercial utility.
Facebook’s total operating costs and expenses are $5.6 billion dollars. Much of that total is devoted to marketing and sales ($1.4 billion), which includes the costs of selling advertising and data to third parties. Another substantial part of the costs is devoted to research and development ($1.9 billion). No doubt only part of those R&D expenses are devoted to improving the experience of Facebook account holders. Much of the sum is probably poured into finding new ways of harvesting and selling data to make money.
The US government could take possession of Facebook, get rid of all the advertising and clutter, eliminate those parts of Facebook’s operation that exist only to generate revenue from ad sales and data sales, and run the entire network as a non-commercial public enterprise, probably at a cost somewhere around $10 per US person. This would improve the user experience right away, and get rid of the intrusive data harvesting and commercial manipulation.
But that move still leaves open the potential for US government abuse, and exploitation of Facebook for narrow partisan political ends, for intensified surveillance, and the stifling of domestic dissent. So subsequently, the US should sponsor the creation of an international treaty organization and international oversight board to run what is now the world’s most important and essential online social network in a way that guarantees free speech, user privacy and operational integrity. As countries join this organization, membership in which would be open to every country, their dues would offset the cost to the US taxpayer. Dues could be determined on an ability to pay basis.
There is no need for, or benefit from, private ownership of a utility when that utility is a natural monopoly. The fundamental rationale for Facebook, and the source of its massive global appeal, is that it can connect everybody on one network. If ever there was a natural monopoly, a network that already connects nearly a third of the world’s people is it. Facebook’s initial stage of existence as a private commercial enterprise should end.
Facebook is something unprecedented and amazing – a truly global utility. Fixing its problems requires an unprecedented cooperative and global solution. There is a minority, but influential, pocket of elite thought that is terrified by Facebook and similar emerging institutions. They think too many people in the world now have the ability to communicate freely with one another, influence politics impertinently from below, and plot and scheme to implement their own conceptions of freedom and human progress. They believe they are losing the battle for control from above, and are desperate either to shut down Facebook and other democratic or “populist” networking tools altogether, or to subject these tools to their own narrow conceptions of hygienic political speech. The two billion users who have now incorporated Facebook into their daily lives, generally in a wholesome, optimistic and liberating way, would be foolish to surrender what they have to these elite reactionaries. We should take command of Facebook, not surrender it.