Why Facebook Owns Your World — and Why it Shouldn’t

by on March 5th, 2015
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As Annie Leonard points out in The Story of Citizens United, the corporation is a legal fiction that’s only been around for a few hundred years. And unlike governments, corporations aren’t accountable to the people whose lives they affect. Especially technology corporations, because the things they’re inventing are so new there aren’t any laws for them.

Why this is a problem

We trust our governments with the basic needs of our society, like libraries, roads and sidewalks, public schools, and the fire department. We do this partly because it doesn’t make sense to ask any one person to pay for these things, and partly because we feel it’d be wrong to make people go without.

The thing is, you need more than just library books to be able to participate in today’s society. In order to find out what’s going on in my neighborhood, I needed to join a website called Meetup.com. To see what’s going on with my favorite brands, I needed to join Twitter. And a lot of people need to have Facebook accounts just to keep up with their friends … or even to log in to a lot of other websites, using Facebook Connect.

If you’re not on sites like Facebook and Twitter, you’re left out of the conversation. It’s not like not having a big-screen TV, where it’s a luxury that not everyone can have. For a lot of people, it’s more like not having a car. In some societies, a car would be considered a luxury. But in modern American society, it’s a necessity, to hold a job or go basically anywhere. Living without one is hard — I should know.

What do these websites have in common?

They’re all run by corporations, which aren’t accountable to anyone except the members of “the 1 percent” who own and invest in them.

They don’t provide us free services because it’s their civic duty. They do it because they’ve been given a lot of money by venture capitalists, to get as many people as possible on their sites. Then, once they’ve gotten to the point where your world literally needs them to keep going — where people are joining because they have to, not because they want to — they start putting in ads, and coming up with ways to sell your time and attention to other corporations.

They’re not like a media company, like Yahoo!, which was sponsored by ads from the start. They’re more like a legal way for corporations to buy people’s friendships and public spaces, without letting you know that you’re selling them. But it’s not legal because they have the right to do that, like how you have the right to free speech (unless Facebook says otherwise). It’s legal because not enough people understand the technology, and realize what’s happening and why this is bad.

What needs to happen

People need online, public spaces. They need them the same way they need access to information. You should be able to pay for an encyclopedia set if you want, but there should always be the public libraries and Wikipedia there for free, and they should be accountable to everyone through governments and nonprofits.

Likewise, instead of just Facebook there needs to be a Wikipedia of social networking, built on principles like Dreamwidth’s and open to everyone. And it needs to use open-source programming code, so that anyone can make their own, and still talk to people on other sites.

Identi.ca and Diaspora are trying to be this for Twitter and Facebook. But they have a long way to go, because the laws are on Twitter’s and Facebook’s sides. The big names don’t have to share their programming code, or let you “friend” or “follow” people on their networks, or do anything else you’d expect of an actual person. All they have to do is deliver a return on investment.

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