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

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 on Wednesday, however, 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 giant social network with other models that aren’t predicated on massive ad-driven surveillance of users. And what would that look like? Wu says it could be a network that provides the same social connection and media sharing functions as Facebook, but users would pay a small fee instead of having their data harvested for advertising. Or, he suggests that it might be possible to create a non-profit that could do something similar, an entity that wouldn’t be driven by the need to sell its targeting abilities to brands.

In his piece, 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?

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, and somehow that happened.

One crucial step required for that future to work would be 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. Which would be a shame. 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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