Nationalize Facebook? Really?

Idle minds are the devil's workshop


so cereal
"The Dark Knight"/internet

From the really, really, really awful ideas department, Philip Howard, currently a fellow at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy, argues on Slate for nationalizing Facebook. The prospect ("thought experiment"), which Professor Howard admits at the end of his piece is "probably a nonstarter," is actually horrifying, even though the good professor argues "the benefits outweigh the risks." What benefits does he see to forcibly seizing the property of Mark Zuckerberg and everyone who's bought a share in the rapidly deteriorating stock of Facebook (precipitated even more, just yesterday, by it being the first day early investors could sell theirs)?  To the text!:

Over the last several years, Facebook has become a public good and an important social resource. But as a company, it is behaving badly, and long term, that may cost it: A spring survey found that almost half of Americans believe that Facebook will eventually fade away. Even the business side has been a bit of a disaster lately, with earnings lower than expected and the news that a significant portion of Facebook profiles are fake. If neither users nor investors can be confident in the company, it's time we start discussing an idea that might seem crazy: nationalizing Facebook.

Of course, Facebook is not a public good, it's a publicly traded company (for less than three months) that may well be a social resource, but it is not a unique or particularly pioneering one. Much of the utility of Facebook comes from the self-organizing principle at work among its users.  Internet kids know first there was Friendster ("but it was kinda lame!"), then MySpace, which briefly became a youth cultural icon and was acquired by News Corp before losing out to Facebook in the social networking wars of the aughts. MySpace is a "social site" now, and focused on music and entertainment. Friendster (still around!) turned into a "social site" too, and decided to focus on gaming. It's big in Asia. And of course Google entered the foray of the social networking wars when Facebook looked it had one them. Of course there's Twitter, too, but that's become something completely different than Facebook.

back in the day, 2007

Those are important observations for the thought experiment. Facebook is not an institution, it's a corporation (they're people, too!) that provides a tool, social networking, which is arguably a cultural institution, at least enough of one for a movie. Unlike the nationalization targets of past and present, like energy companies, utilities  or banks, the company Facebook doesn't have a physical (or digital, even) infrastructure that can be seized and made into an exclusive provider. When the government seizes roads or utilities, you largely still have to use those.  The entire infrastructure can be taken by the government, and competition becomes prohibitively expensive or even impossible. I can't imagine a thought experiment that could lock users into their Facebook account. Nationalization would be the biggest boon to Google Plus, so perhaps the next step would be to nationalize Google too.

Yet Professor Howard actually argues that "[w]ith 80 percent of market share, Facebook is already a monopoly, and being publicly traded hasn't made it more socially responsible. The map of its global market dominanceis impressive, though some might say this is a map of colonization." This is what happens when the professors figure out what the kids are doing. Yet when you dig in to what this means (users!), Howard appears to be half-right but mostly wrong. Facebook appears to have actually lost 400,000 users in North America in the year ending March 31. The chart of the geographical breakdown of Facebook users shows its greatest growth in the 2011 was in users in South America, about 62 percent, Asia (48 percent) and Africa (47 percent). Which is exactly like colonization, except it's not. The users in South America, Asia and Africa are, presumably, South Americans, Asians and Africans.  Internet penetration rates on those continents right now are, respectively, 40 percent, 26 percent and 16 percent, meaning as those rates increase Facebook is bound to meet local competitors who may be better poised to give local internet users the kind of social network they want. About 18 percent of internet users in Asia and 27 percent in Africa have Facebook accounts. There are of course, plenty of zombie Facebook accounts, so those are actually the upper limit of what the actual penetration of Facebook is among internet users in those places.

The phenomenon of social networking and Facebook is a product of the free-for-all that is the Internet. Websites and social networks live and die by their popularity among users; the Internet, two decades on, remains a rapidly changing environment, and the idea that Facebook's present dominance is a gauge of its future does not bear out. Take the movement of its stock price since its IPO earlier this year. Though Howard mentions it primarily to paint Facebook as a company in need of some government intervention, the deteriorating stock price is actually a signal that the marketplace (everybody buying and selling shares) does not have confidence in Facebook's and its boosters' evaluations (which are, naturally, ever cheery). By the survey Howard points to, half of Americans agree. And of course the market will know better, because its constituents have got skin in the game.

since more people are worried about government knowing too much about them, can we privatize that?
The Atlantic

As to the actual benefits Howard lists, there's no evidence the government would be a good steward of Facebook users' privacy. Americans' privacy is under nearly constant assault by government. The government faces serious data breaches at an increasing pace. Government officials are known to play fast and loose with the rules for personal and political gain. Governments tout transparency and accountability but regularly flout both. Perhaps more tellingly, 47 percent of Americans are more worried about their government knowing too much about their personal lives, with only 28 percent distrusting private companies more.

Whatever privacy sins Facebook may be committing, there are clear accountability measures. People may complain about privacy settings on Facebook (more seem to complain about the timeline, at least on my feed), but ultimately Facebook users are free to move on to other social networking sites or to use social networking tools differently. If there is a deficiency in Facebook that can be corrected by another social network, competitors will arise. Google has already tried to help its users along into Google Plus by integrating its various internet properties, like YouTube and Gmail. So long as Facebook and Google and everyone else providing a service on the Internet is allowed to attempt to react to market forces, they'll be able to adapt and evolve, without an intelligent designer from government.  The Internet is a complex and adaptive system, like all human activity, and intervention by government, because it is by definition a centralizing force, restricts activity and thus the dynamism of the system.

a cautionary tale

Once the government nationalizes something, it becomes, by definition, too big to fail. When Richard Nixon created what became Amtrak, he meant to intervene to save a dying passenger rail industry. More than forty years later, Amtrak operates at a constant loss, with virtually no competition to discipline it. For the Internet to continue to provide an environment for human creativity and the entrepreneurial spirit, companies like Facebook and Google have to be able to succeed without the threat of government intervention most importantly so that they can fail without it as well. The Internet is the closest thing we have to a free market, to the self-organizing principle at work, on this planet—something better is always bound to come along there, so long as the government doesn't intervene.

There are plenty more risks to outweigh whatever limited benefits to nationalizing Facebook there might be–add your own in the comments!

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  1. I forget. Who killed him? Mary-Kate or Ashley?

    1. I don’t know, but if you ask me, Prince William didn’t do it right. He should’ve married Kate and Ashley.

  2. a significant portion of Facebook profiles are fake.

    If you think voter fraud is rampant *now*, just wait until FB gets nationalized.

    1. Well then they’ll just criminalize fake profiles.

      I’m pleased to say that my only facebook use is with a fake profile. I don’t need my name out there like that.

  3. I hear he’s hiding something in a tax shelter that was disclosed on his tax return.

  4. A spring survey found that almost half of Americans believe that Facebook will eventually fade away.

    So over half of Americans are retarded enough to think we’ll still be using Facebook at the heat death of the universe?

    1. Until I see a proton decay, I’m not buying the HDOTU. So Facebook FOREVER.

      1. Actually, current theory is that the inflationary force is increasing over time and will eventually overwhelm all other forces, meaning that in about 22 billion years, nothing more complex than individual sub-atomic particles will be able to hold together.

        1. So, Tony’s brain will still be intact?

        2. I am still a fan of the wave propagation theory or red-shift in the larger universe. Van Flandern All The Way!

  5. So, is it appropriate to call this exemplar of Top Men, Howard the Chatterer, a fascist?

    There must be some benefits to the clowardpivanization movement.

  6. All national treasures should be nationalized. Julia Roberts should be nationalized.

    1. As should the dulcet tones of Ry Cooder!

      1. “Paradis and Lunch,” especially. What a great album.

  7. “I like using Facebook, but they don’t run it exactly the way that I want, and they won’t listen to me. Let’s steal it, and then it will be run exactly the way that I want.”

    Shorter Slate piece.

    1. Might want a slight edit.

      “I like using Facebook, but they don’t run it exactly the way that I want, and they won’t listen to me. Let’s steal it and give control to a group in which I have a 1 in 314 million say, and then it will be run exactly the way that I want.”

      1. “We here at Slate have observed that everything the government does always conforms perfectly to our wishes and dreams and expectations. That makes me conclude that if Facebook was run by the government, everything about it would perfectly conform to the imaginary Facebook I have in my mind.”

      2. Even better edit:

        I like using Facebook, but it’s a private company where people make money for providing a service that others value, and we just can’t have that.


  8. Timeline makes Facebook unusable, BTW. The death of Facebook will occur within 2 years if Timeline remains in place in its current configuation.

    I’ve never encountered a web company as determined to destroy its core product as Facebook is.

    1. It completely messed up the order of posts and makes it hard to find particular info you’re looking for. I hate it.

      The only nice part of it is the cover photo, but most people have really boring ones anyway so who cares.

    2. I originally signed up because it was originally tasteful, unlike MySpace.

      Now, I’ve deleted my original profile and only use a bare-bones account to keep in touch with people Groups I belong to and have to keep up with.

    3. I’ve never encountered a web company as determined to destroy its core product as Facebook is.

      *cough* netflix*cough*

    4. I have been resisting for a long time. Sounds like they’re going to force it starting August 23rd. I’m half-tempted to walk away.

  9. Timeline makes Yahoo’s design choices for the last ten years look smart.


    1. Hidden in this post, you will find a secret message predicting that when Facebook falls, Reddit will inherit the Earth.

      1. Upvote.

      2. Nope, women are the ones that will decide this war. Bet on Pinterest.

    2. This article is further evidence of my theory that leftists have no fucking clue what a public good is. Generally, in a list of six public goods, only one is actually a public good.

  11. The comments at Slate are 100% calling this guy a dick. Extraordinary that an article can be so authoritarian and contemptuous that even Slate readers resile from it

  12. Ten Things I Hate About Working at Facebook

    FWIW – I don’t happen to agree with #’s 4 8.

    1. # 5 and 10 are insane

    2. It’s a funny piece, but I tend to think that a software company needs great engineers…who are dressed up in Gimp leather and chains and serve at the pleasure of great designers.

      Give engineers enough power and they’ll destroy your core product and drive away your customers. Because their ideas are so “neat”.

      1. Sadly, the same is true of “great designers”. I can no longer count the software I’ve encountered that has wound up designed to death, become unusable and faded away.
        It can even happen to programming languages.

        Engineers are not the only ones who are susceptible to becoming hypnotized by their own ‘neat’ ideas.

      2. I cannot possibly agree with you more, though I’d like to add that the only thing capable of destroying a great product with equal efficiency is the collective design sensibility of a focus group.

        1. What, no hate for marketing?

    3. This has got to be satire. No one besides Tony and suck this much authority shlong:

      For someone like me with zero gastronomic self-control, this supposed “benefit” or “perk” is a complete disaster. Why doesn’t the FDA step in?

      I’ve been preaching a much simpler approach: always go with the opinion of the person who’s closest to Zuck. Or the opinion of the person in the room who manages the most people.

      We have execs for a reason. They should be telling us what to build. Not the other way around. Corporations should be autocracies, not democracies. What ? we should all just go off and create whatever amuses us? Where’s the leadership?

      (Emphasis in original)

      But of course you certainly can’t trust your average coworker:

      People at Facebook regularly assume ? I kid you not ? that employees they’ve never worked with will excel at their jobs, work hard, and deliver what they promise. This type of idealism is frankly nauseating.

  13. 5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

    1. Just one more item to check off Karl’s list, ain’t it?

  14. Is it hard to believe this is not satire. Is there any wonder that the average American has no understanding of extremely simple economic concepts like public goods and monopoly power when PhDs on the short bus are given a forum for this kind of gibberish? Howard purports to have an MSc in Economics which means he knows better, which means that he is deliberately bastardizing the vocabulary of his trade. I am sure he and his jejune peers find his worship of the state to be ever so stylish but he sounds like a moron.

    1. Paul Krugman has a Nobel Prize in economics, and he is one of the biggest dumbasses in the history of EARF! Argument refuted.

      1. That is my point. Paul Krugman knows exactly what public goods are and he knows what a monopoly is. He deliberately misuses expressions like these for his own bootlicking fantasies. People who know no better assume that he uses the terms correctly. Krugman is proud of the fact that he convinces people to take him seriously by using blatant falsehoods. That makes him an unambiguously repugnant human being.

      2. Ahem…


  15. Because if Facebook loses its dominance, no one would ever come up with another social networking site that could substitute. Nope, the only way to have it is for the government to run it. That always works well.

  16. I pretty much stopped using FB once timeline kicked in on me. It’s just awful.

    I can only imagine how hard talking shit to my few friends that are fans of Penn State is gonna get, which is one of the few redeeming qualities of FB.

    I’d also like to take this opportunity to ask some of you a question: some of you constantly talk about how your FB friends arfe statist assheads when I rarely, and I mean rarely, see anything about politics from my friends. It’s all about their kids, their families, them getting drunk or somebody from my old hometown doing something stupid. Who are these people you are all associating with that actually go to FB to cheerlead for Obama?

    Protip: find new old friends to put on your FB. Find the ones that were really into sports and/or getting drunk and drop the ones that were serious about the world.

    1. There’s lies, damned lies, and Facebook infographics

    2. Who are these people you are all associating with that actually go to FB to cheerlead for Obama?

      All the people who do it on my feed don’t say a word about it in real life.

    3. Sloopy, not only is my feed riddled with Obama cheerleaders, but surprise, surprise, they get very offended when you challenge their propaganda for all their friends to see.

      Just yesterday I got home to find that I’d been defriended by a guy who posts Democratic memes nonstop that I enjoy commenting on occasionally. It seems he had enough of me and my arguments.

    4. For me it’s really just one person. She works for a company that creates a lot of the bullshit Dem. talking points and plasters them all over the internet.

    5. Uummm….I live in DC, dude.

    6. Only one of my FB friends talks about politics that much. And its always the gay guy who was in the closet in high school.

    7. I grew up with lots of people who became teachers, which means I saw lots of Democratic propaganda.

      I was also in a few atheist groups, which means I saw lots of Democratic propaganda.

      I also live in a red state, which means I saw lots of Republican propaganda. Also, things like “Speak English” and “Drug Test Welfare Recipients” and other expensive propositions from supposedly small government types.

      I also live in the Bible Belt, which means I saw lots of pictures of Bloody Jesus and Cloud Jesus and attribution to Gawd things which could be explained naturally (like children, or appendectomies).

      1. You trying to tell me God couldn’t perform an appendectomy?

        /Eddie Harris, MD

    8. The worst was when Obama finally supported gay marriage. He was everyone’s hero again, despite fucking everything up and of course, only saying anything because Biden is a dumbass.

  17. My decision to never join facebook looks better everyday. Someday, when facebook crumbles back into the earth, I can laugh at everyone and say I was not one of those sucked into the hell of facebook. Sure I may have missed out on a few parties, contests or whatever that were only promoted on facebook, but I win, damn it, and you can’t convince me otherwise. This totally somehow makes me a better person than you.

    1. Sure I may have missed out on a few parties, contests or whatever that were only promoted on facebook, but I win, damn it, and you can’t convince me otherwise.

      The two best things about Facebook for me are using it to host/get invited to parties and to view pictures from events. When I was single a close third was stalking girls to find out if they’re single or have common interests I could bring up.

  18. Hilarious.

    1. Way to give credence to conspiracy theorists who believe Facebook is a front for the CIA.

    2. Privacy concerns, fuck yeah.

    3. The Facebook IPO was so clearly a way for the early investors to cash out, anyone who bought Facebook stock is a moron.

  19. Also, that map really needs to be updated. Facebook invaded Myspace and conquored most of their territory, and I’m pretty sure that the Xanganese government collapsed. Reddit conquored the entire Sea of memes and had been raiding the coasts of the blogipaligo for the past few years.

    1. But no one is capable of assaulting Hacker News. They are the Switzerland of the internet…and almost as well defended as 4chan but with morals. p.s. if 4Chan reads this I mean it as a compliment, please don’t destroy my life.

  20. and the news that a significant portion of Facebook profiles are fake

    If you read the article, you quickly discover that by “fake”, they mean anyone who doesn’t want to Facebook under their real name, which is the major reason I don’t have a Facebook account. Pretty much the first rule of being secure on the internet is to not use your real name.

  21. A spring survey found that almost half of Americans believe that Facebook will eventually fade away.

    And, of course, nothing harms the Collective like change. No thing (or worse, JOB), once created, can ever be destroyed. Or civilization will crumble. This is why nationalization is imperative.

  22. I really love this part:
    “Let’s start with privacy. Right now, the company violates everybody’s privacy expectations, not to mention privacy laws.”

    So this moron’s solution is to have the US Government run facebook. The same US Government that’s running massive spying operations on pretty much everyone in the country, routinely flouts its own privacy laws (when it doesn’t bother to write exceptions for itself), and is in a position to actually use all of that data against you. Wow.

    1. What else to you expect from someone who considers Facebook a public good?

  23. Again, it would be nice if there were some open interface standards in the social networking space so that we could get some competition between companies, rather than one company that no one can really compete with because of Network effects.

  24. Holy crap. I thought the idea sounded dumb from Reason’s summary. Reading the article itself, it’s actually outright fascist. The guy sounds like an Ayn Rand villain. “This stuff could be really valuable for the nation…so let’s take it! And of course all of the owners and employees will thank us for doing it, because we’re ‘freeing them up’ to do more important things!”

  25. Whoa, whoa, wait a minute! First off, why is it automatically assumed that Facebook’s eventual demise is a bad thing? Is Facebook a poor lost puppy that needs to be given warm milk and medical intervention even though it’s suffering from head trauma and broken bones from being run over by a semi? What is it about freedom that the Left can never understand?

    It’s called creative destruction and it’s a beautiful thing no matter how much it makes liberals squirm. If you think I’m just complaining about Democrats, think again. Republicans do their fair share of nanny state antics. Even the supposed Ayn Randian extraordinaire, Paul Ryan?he’s been voting for bailouts and his favorite forms of big government throughout his career.


  26. If it moves, tax it. If it continues to move, regulate it. If it stop moving, subside it.

    Ronald Reagan on Government’s view on any business.

    1. subside? (subsidize)

      The Dude Subsides…

  27. Professor Howard should be absolute proof that highly educated != intelligent.

    In fact, one could make an argument based off of this Facebook should be nationalized piece that the more highly educated one is, the fucking dumber they are.

  28. Barring any other risks/benefits, FB needs to remain exactly as it is in order to stimulate others to come up with a better social media tool. There was never a ‘war’, there is a natural progression. G+ didn’t do it, yet someone else will given time and incentive.

  29. Wouldn’t it be awesome if all interactions on Facebook were completely tracked and regulated by government? I mean, think of the value added they could provide! I totally think they’d help people make good judgements, prevent thought crime, and end exploitation by corporations.

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