David Mitchell tweeted this morning (@RealDMitchell) linking to an article he'd written, proposing Facebook become a national service. He does make some good points, and he also raises some of the serious problems with the question of nationalizing Facebook. And, of course, he's a comedian, so it's all pretty tongue-in-cheek.* His post, I think, illustrates an interesting problem, if not actually articulating it. With services like Facebook and Google, we're approaching truly international service monopolies. International resources. They're also trans-national data gatherers.
The problems with letting any one country run them are obvious, and, to a lesser extent, the same problems would exist if you gave them over to the UN.
Any political body is necessarily biased towards the interests of some political entities over others, and it would therefore be irresponsible to give them control over the overwhelmingly powerful information databases that Facebook and Google represent.
These are the people with the guns -- bigotry or immorality on the part of a corporation can do a lot of damage, but it can never quite qualify as tyranny to the extent that a government can manage. A corporation can do a lot of damage to a country's national climate, but it takes a state to make a police state, and leaving any one state in charge of either of these global information giants nearly guarantees that outcome.**
Further, Mitchell raises the point that Facebook would probably be closed half the time if the government ran it. Though that's an exaggeration, it's true that the innovations that made Facebook and Google what they are would be seriously hamstrung by a government budget and organizational structure. The goals and spirits of these companies would be directly undermined by government-style management.
But the point remains that it's scary to leave them run as corporations.
For the moment, I'm not worried. The current owners of Facebook and Google are obviously in it for reasons other than money. I think anyone who thinks these people care more about the profits they're making than the product they're making hasn't been paying attention, and might never have met a geek.
But eventually, they'll die, or retire, or get lazy. (I think it's more likely they'll die or retire.) Someone else will take over, and what are the odds their boards of directors are going to prioritize finding and cultivating another obsessed nerd to take over, rather than someone with "Business-savvy" who'll turn Facebook and Google into what a lot of us are afraid they already are?
I've got no idea what the solution to this problem is.
Or, that's not exactly right. I have an idea of the flavor of the solution, I just don't have any clue how one would go about creating it.
What we need is some new designation of an entity -- something international, non-governmental, but not profit driven, either. Something that could structure Google's and Facebook's employment policies as appeals to altruism, with the added benefit of giving you enough money to not die. (And, in Google's case, if you're a genius, enough cool stuff to never have to leave Google HQ again.)
The corporate structure falls short, because it treats the profit as the intrinsic thing, rather than the quality of the product. So does the government structure, because it'll hobble the needs of the particular service in deference to the wants and needs of the government as a whole.
Of course, I've got no clue what that would look like.
*It took me to the end of this paragraph to realize that not everyone who reads this blog would know who David Mitchell is. Here's an illustrative rant. **For the sake of getting to my point, I'm going to put the breakdown of that logic in a footnote. If any one country controlled the information flow of the entire world, it would be unreasonable to expect that they wouldn't use that access to improve law enforcement. Doubly so, given the most likely country to take control would be the United States, if it came to that. Once that position is reached, one can't realistically argue that all laws would be enforced equally through this technology, or that all regions of the world would be enforced in the same way. There's a chance, however slim, that if, for example, the US controlled Facebook, Americans wouldn't suffer particularly harshly as a result. We cannot realistically also make that assessment for Egyptians or Indians in this scenario. The manipulation of information to promote enforcement would serve the national interests of whatever country controlled Facebook, and it's always in any given country's national interest for some other country to be oppressed.