The meat of Facebook

danah boyd wrote a blog post arguing that Facebook ought to be regulated like a utility. What exactly it means to be a utility, and why utilities ought to be regulated in general, is not the main focus of her piece, and she adds in an addendum that the issue is not so much that FB is a utility as that it is trying to be one. But, in any case, I want to push against the utility analogy with one of my own.

I take it that the reason why utilities ought to be regulated is that they are monopolies, and in a single-provider market, people can’t realistically use the threat of leaving for a competitor as leverage for bargaining with the monopolistic company. To claim this is the case for Facebook is surely an overstatement: people can and do opt out of using Facebook, and certainly there are enough other social options out there to block the analogy between them and “people who are building cabins in the woods” (an analogy suggested by boyd). Even if Facebook is dominant, it’s not a monopoly in the way that utility companies are, so the same arguments for regulation don’t really work.

The government sees fit to regulate in other sorts of cases, though. Take the meat industry. The government regulates certain aspects of the meat industry (however lax or ill-conceived USDA oversight might be). The justification here is not that the meat industry is monopolistic (though I’m sure it is mostly controlled by a couple conglomerates, and insofar as this is true it should be additionally regulated as a monopoly). Instead, the justification seems to be: 1) this kind of industry has the potential to do great harm if left to its own devices (E. coli and stuff like that), and 2) it is unlikely that many (or any) consumers of this industry’s goods are in a position to verify independently the claims of the industry (not many have access to labs where they can test for bacteria, etc). The government is justified in protecting its citizens at their most vulnerable (you might even say this is the primary reason for government). So they’re justified in regulating the meat industry.

The case of Facebook is parallel. 1) Because people keep a lot of their most important stuff in Facebook, a large amount of harm could be done if Zuck decided to start selling it to advertisers or something more nefarious still. 2) It’s difficult, if not impossible, for most people to verify the claims of FB with respect to how FB claims to store and use data. For one thing, the “privacy” settings are arcane to the point of incomprehensibility. And even if you figure out the settings, without access to FB’s software and servers, you can’t really know whether they’re living up to their word. Thus, government regulation might be justified.

Someone needs to write The Jungle, Part II: Zuckerpunched.

4 thoughts on “The meat of Facebook

  1. Andrea_R

    You know, I was reading through trying to articulate the reasons why I haven’t (and will not) sign up for FB at all, when some overriding situations hit me.

    There are people who are now so used to FB (shepherded, herded) that they literally never go anywhere else.

    If I want to look at pictures of my new granddaughter, I have to get a FB account & friend my grown children, or creep someone else’s account.

    I have another friend I never see in person anymore, who practically lives on FB. She never emails, never visits any other sites. If it’s not on FB, she doesn’t go there. If I never go to FB, I never communicate with her.

    It’s this walled garden, you’ll be safe here (right where we can sell you things) that really bugs me. Sure, we could argue that the two people above could make more of an effort to communicate via other sources as well, but FB seems to have so smoothly set this up for the “everyone will be here!” until it is the defacto choice, like having a Windows OS was.

  2. Boone Gorges Post author

    Andrea – Thanks for the comment. I have never really felt a strong attachment to Facebook myself. Was never really a big user. But it’s helpful to understand the points of view of those who do find FB important. Have you seen the posts by Luke and Matt about this issue?

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