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.
By “nationalizing Facebook,” I mean public ownership and at least a majority share at first. When nationalizing the company restores the public trust, that controlling interest could be reduced. There are three very good reasons for this drastic step: It could fix the company’s woeful privacy practices, allow the social network to fulfill its true potential for providing social good, and force it to put its valuable data to work on significant social problems.
Let’s start with privacy. Right now, the company violates everybody’s privacy expectations, not to mention privacy laws. It also struggles to respond properly to regulatory requests in different countries. In part, this is because its services are designed to meet the bare minimum of legal expectations in each jurisdiction. When users in Europe request copies of the data Facebook keeps on them, they are sent huge volumes of records. But not every user lives in a jurisdiction that requires such responsiveness from Facebook—U.S. users are out of luck because their regulators don’t ask as many questions as those in the European Union andCanada. Privacy watchdogs consistently complain that the company uses user data in ways they didn’t agree to or anticipate. There are suspicions that the company creates shadow profiles of people who aren’t even users but whose names get mentioned by people who are Facebook users.