The rise of Facebook Nation

The social network has become as big and powerful as a country -- and it's time its citizens got a constitution

Published December 31, 2011 2:00PM (EST)

       (<a href=''>ponsulak kunsub</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(ponsulak kunsub via Shutterstock/Salon)

This article was adapted from the upcoming book "I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did," available Jan. 10 from the Free Press.

When David Cameron became Britain’s prime minister, he made an appointment to talk to another head of state — Mark Zuckerberg. Yes, that Mark Zuckerberg: the billionaire wunderkind, the founder of Facebook. At the meeting at 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Cameron and Facebook president Zuckerberg discussed ways in which social networks could take over certain governmental duties and inform public policymaking.

A month later, Zuckerberg and Cameron had a follow-up conversation, later posted on YouTube. Cameron, dressed in suit and tie, chatted with Zuckerberg, who wore a blue cotton T-shirt. “Basically, we’ve got a big problem here,” Cameron pointed out to Zuckerberg, describing the U.K.’s financial woes.

Zuckerberg outlined how Facebook could be used as a platform to decrease spending and increase public participation in the political process: “I mean  all these people have great ideas and a lot of energy that they want to bring, and I think for a lot of people it’s just about having an easy and a cheap way for them too to communicate  their ideas.”

“Brilliant,” Cameron said.

Within a year, Zuckerberg had a seat at the table with government leaders. In May 2011, he attended the G-8 Summit, the annual meeting of key heads of state (named after the  eight advanced economies—France,  the  United  States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Italy, Canada,  and Russia). The media reported that world leaders from German  Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President Nicolas Sarkozy were more in awe of Zuckerberg than he was of them.

Zuckerberg summarized  how Facebook had played a role in worldwide democratic movements and pressed his own policy agenda — urging European officials to back off of proposed regulation of the Internet. “People tell me, 'On the one hand, it’s great you played such a big role in the Arab Spring, but it’s also kind of scary because you enable all this sharing and collect information on people,’” Zuckerberg said.

Is it odd to think of Mark Zuckerberg as a head of state? Perhaps. But Facebook has the power and reach of a nation. With more than 750 million members, Facebook’s population would make it the third-largest nation in the world. It has citizens, an economy, its own currency, systems for resolving disputes, and relations with other nations and institutions. After watching the video chat between Cameron and Zuckerberg, I became intrigued by the concept of a social network as a nation. I began to wonder: What kind of government rules Facebook? What are its politics? And, if it is like a nation, should it have a constitution?

People are understandably drawn to social networks. For individuals, social networks allow people to stay in touch, performing some of the same functions performed by telephones and letters in previous eras. But laws protect us against outsiders tapping our phones and reading our private mail. Even prisoners can send mail to their lawyers without having those letters read by prison officials. But everything we post on social networks is fair game for the engineers behind Facebook and any other data miner.

Facebook and other social networks are transforming huge swaths of our lives— how we mate, shop, work and stay in touch with the people we love. They are also changing the political process itself. When John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon debated on television, concerns were raised that politics would deteriorate into a contest where the most telegenic candidate won. But TV debates took place out in the open — anyone could tune in. And the Federal Communications Commission adopted regulations so that opposing candidates were granted equal time to present their views.

With social networks, it’s not the most telegenic candidate who wins, but the one with the best data crunchers. Barack Obama was swept into office largely because of his presence on the Web. His social network campaign was managed by one of the founders of Facebook, 24-year-old Chris Hughes, who took a leave from the company to help propel Obama into office.

The Republicans did Obama one better and stormed Washington in the 2010 elections through the targeted use of social network data. Data aggregators used data from social networks, such as people’s interest in the Bible, past political contributions, voter registration status, shopping history, and real estate records to identify conservative voters by name and provide that information to Republican political hopefuls. The candidates could then email the people directly, making promises and taking stances that were never revealed to the public — and were shielded from the scrutiny of their opponents.

With not only the rights of individuals at stake, but also the future of the political process itself, it’s time to analyze how we as social network citizens can be protected. What responsibilities should individuals bear? What rules should govern what can be done with our digital selves and our data by the social networks themselves and the third parties who gain access to that information? What rights should social network citizens have?

The complex issues raised by social networks came to the fore after the 2011 British riots. Prime Minister Cameron, who’d previously felt that social network communities were “brilliant,” felt differently once rioters began to communicate with each other via Facebook, Twitter and BlackBerry Messenger to share information about what shops to loot.

“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised by social media,” the prime minister told the House of Commons.  “So we are working with the police, the intelligence services and industry to look at whether it would be right to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality. I have also asked the police if they need any other new powers.”

Member of Parliament David Lammy pointed out that rioters had used BlackBerry Messenger to send encrypted and almost untraceable messages to each other. He urged Research in Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, to shut off that service entirely until order was restored in the streets. The prime minister similarly asked Twitter and Facebook to remove messages, images and videos that could incite riots.

Civil rights advocates reacted immediately. “How do people ‘know’ when someone is planning to riot?” asked Jim Killock, the executive director of the online advocacy organization Open Rights Group. “Who makes that judgment?” Legitimate advocacy and well-grounded protests will be stifled if social networks and websites are pressured to censor their members.

Social networks have stunning benefits. But the  citizens of Facebook  Nation who see those benefits may not realize the downside. The young nation was founded only recently, less than a decade ago. Its original citizens were college students who are probably still too young to have experienced rampant discrimination in jobs, romance or credit lines based on what they’ve posted. They may not yet realize the extent to which their offline self is being overshadowed by their digital doppelgänger.

People came to Facebook Nation for freedom of association, free expression and the chance to present an evolving self. But unless people’s rights are protected, social networks will serve to narrow people’s behavior and limit their opportunities, rather than expand them. Already people are being fired for engaging in perfectly legal activities, such as the wine-drinking employee who is tagged on Facebook. And new norms of behavior are emerging that do not reflect off-the-grid life, such as rules forbidding judges to “friend” lawyers.

Unlike a democracy, Facebook is unilaterally redefining the social contract — making the private now public and making the public now private. Private information about people is readily available to third parties. At the same time, public institutions, such as the police, use social networks to privately undertake activities that previously would have been subject to public oversight. Even though cops can’t enter a home without a warrant, they scrutinize Facebook photos of parties held at high school students’ homes. If they see the infamous red plastic cups suggesting that kids are drinking, they prosecute the parents for furnishing alcohol to minors.

Social networks are taking over many of the traditional functions of government without any legal protections for their citizens. The underlying economic goal of social networks — monetizing personal data — is invisible to their citizens and may in fact be herding them into a land that they wouldn’t want to inhabit.

The U.S. Constitution was penned by philosopher-politicians gravely concerned with the metaphysical question of what was necessary for the flourishing of individuals and society. They understood that living socially and with aspirations meant adopting principles to deal with everything from resolving disputes to encouraging innovation, from structuring relationships with other nations to protecting individual rights.

They recognized the value of protecting people’s privacy and assuring the oversight of governmental actions. They required that the governing rules about the relationship between citizens and the government be clearly stated in advance and not changed without adequate notice and citizens’ input. They favored openness about what the government was doing, believing, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said a century later, that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” They also saw the value of being able to remake oneself, to start afresh.

Instead of philosophy, computer engineering and data collection are the driving forces behind the policies of Facebook Nation. The quest for more and more information about more and more people is what stimulates the Facebook economy because the service makes its money on data. The executives behind social networks often disregard the values that are central to the U.S. Constitution. The Facebook founders, for example, view the desire for privacy as something to be outgrown. In a 2010 interview, Mark Zuckerberg commented on Facebook’s decision to make certain previously private information public: “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” Former Facebook programmer Charlie Cheever said, “I feel Mark doesn’t believe in privacy that much, or at least believes in privacy as a stepping-stone.”

And the very structure of social networks prevents you from reinventing yourself. Once information about you and photos of you are on the Web, they can be used against you in perpetuity.

As we each begin to live a parallel life on Facebook, it’s time to figure out, as with any new country, what principles should govern this new nation. Do the principles on which the United States and other democracies were founded still resound with people today? Could they provide guidance for the governance of social networks?

The  project of proposing a Social Network Constitution  may seem foolish. Facebook, Myspace, Google, Twitter, and YouTube are private entities, and the U.S. Constitution  governs only the actions of the government, not private actors. But that is not the case in other countries, such as Germany, Ireland, South Africa and the European  Union, where the fundamental values expressed in the national constitution can apply to companies in addition to governments. After all, companies may be more powerful than some governments — that’s certainly the case with Facebook.

And even in the United States, the fundamental values expressed in the U.S. Constitution  provide guidance for the private realm.  The 14th Amendment’s idea of equal protection under the law provided the foundation for Congress to enact civil rights laws that govern the conduct of corporations and private citizens. The Fourth Amendment’s protections for privacy provided judges with the inspiration to allow lawsuits against individuals and corporations that disseminated a person’s private information without consent.

We needn’t think of a Social Network Constitution  as a set of rules, like the Internal Revenue Code, that would govern in minute detail what a social network should or shouldn’t do. Instead, think of it as a touchstone, an expression of fundamental values, that we should use to judge the activities of social networks and their citizens. These principles could be used to frame the societal debates about social networks — guiding not only the decisions of citizens about what technologies they should reject but also the decisions of courts and legislatures about what principles should govern.

In many instances, the principles would help courts make a determination  in a case, analyze existing laws, and decide whether or not to let evidence in at trial. These values could also guide legislators who are considering adopting new laws to regulate social networks.

The very nature of social networks is constantly changing. New technologies are introduced and individual users face new issues. A set of strict, rigid rules governing the use of social networks might be effective now but will quickly become outdated, just as other laws that are intended to protect people, such as wiretapping laws and consent laws, fail to protect and serve the needs of the current online community. Unlike the rigid, formula-driven Internal Revenue Code, a Social Network Constitution should be flexible and recognize basic principles that we should never outgrow. Its provisions would address the actions of government agencies, social institutions and society at large.

Every democratic nation has governing principles about what rights its citizens have over property, privacy, life and liberty. The citizens of Facebook Nation deserve no less.

Excerpted from "I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy," by Lori Andrews. Copyright 2012 by Lori Andrews. Published by Free Press.

By Lori B. Andrews

Lori B. Andrews is a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and the director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology. She is the author of 14 books, including "The Clone Age: Adventures in the New World of Reproductive Technology."

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