Facebook as Lightning Rod

lightning-rod-image The New York Times has obtained some of Facebook’s internal planning records.  These show that Facebook is what it says it is, what its founders have always understood it to be: a device for harvesting intimate knowledge of people’s private lives and selling that knowledge to corporate marketers.

The meat of the NYT story is the revelation that, despite pretending to promise the Federal Trade Commission that it would cease doing so, Facebook has continued to sell “what are known internally as “capabilities” — the special privileges enabling companies to obtain data, in some cases without asking permission.”

This means, among other things:

Facebook [has] assumed extraordinary power over the personal information of its 2.2 billion users — control it has wielded with little transparency or outside oversight. Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier. [The New York Times, 12/19/2018]

Despite its importance, the great problem with this exposé is that it is yet another major case of rotten-appleism, of trying to portray a systemic imperative as a mere miscreant malpractice. As the NYT acknowledges, “personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.”

Why is that, and what entities and forces are genuinely responsible for the radical, progressively worsening market-totalitarianism of our life environment? It ain’t just ham-handed, yuppie-faced Facebook. It is, as somebody once said, a matter of Economics 101 in our supposedly best-possible, history-resolving system.

facebook finger-point image

Meanwhile, the proper answer to all this is not more silly efforts to regulate private-sector media providers. It is to empower the United States Postal System to enter the realm of modern communications, on all fronts, with full competitive aggression. A non-commercial, publicly-guaranteed social networking website, for example, could neatly and reliably dispose of all the problems inherent in Facebook, including the privacy issue.

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