The problem with Facebook, like so many other corporations is that it got greedy and tried to do too many things all at once and when all such ethical options were exhausted, they went into the unethical. There is no doubt that, as Julian Assange and Edward Snowden both have said, Facebook is a corporate surveillance tool. Corporate surveillance is one thing and it isn’t pleasant, but nor does it endanger free speech, freedom of expression and international political systems. But when such a corporate surveillance system is paired with political manipulation and political censorship, things become incredibly dangerous – assuming things like free speech, actual democracy, free elections and political transparency matter. Of course some will say that phenomena endangering free speech and democracy existed long before Facebook and indeed they did. But so too did deadly diseases exist before AIDS and no one ever used such an argument to call for curtailing the quest to develop a cure for AIDS.
The solution is simple. Instead of Facebook having one rule for left, one rule for right and a third rule for companies like Cambridge Analytica whose millions transcend any ideological considerations, there should instead be one rule for individuals and small businesses, one rule for big business and one rule for politicians and their financial backers.
Here’s how it would work:
1. The rule for individuals and small businesses
An individual should be allowed to say and do anything on Facebook so long as it doesn’t violate national or international laws. This means that in most societies, short of conspiring to commit crimes against humanity, terrorism or pedophilia, anything goes.
There is no reason that political debates, personal debates or even adult themes cannot police themselves in an online environment where a ‘block’ button is even more effective than changing the television channel was in the ‘old days’. People need to grow up and that includes governments and social media owners trying to censor individuals. Silly, strange or even provocative views are only offensive if you see them. No one holds a gun to anyone’s head saying ‘don’t press the block button’. In a rational society this would be obvious enough. Sadly, reason is an increasingly endangered concept.
There are a lot of weird people out there and a lot of offensive people out there. Most of them go into government in countries like the US, Britain, France and Germany. But there are still other weirdos and offensive people who aren’t in government. They too have a right to speak to their weird and offensive audience. Let them do it on Facebook and let them be blocked by the rest of us.
It’s called being a rational person – it is a beautiful thing whenever it is tried.
For small businesses, things should be much the same. So long as one is not using Facebook ads to promote something encouraging criminal activity, let them sell it. If someone doesn’t like an ad, that too can be blocked. Again, this is far more user friendly than having to change television channels to avoid the acid reflux commercial in the middle of dinner.
2. The rule for big businesses
If someone is planning on spending more than $20,000 per month on Facebook ads, there should be a higher level of scrutiny to make sure that a few big corporations don’t monopolise sponsored content on Facebook. For example, if CNN tries to outspend alternative media sources exponentially, such alternative sources should have the opportunity to purchase cost effective but equally visible ad space to create equal time for all points of view. The same can apply to any other big business sector.
Because of the flexibility of online advertising, others should have the opportunity to gain equal time according to their ability to pay. This means no monetary breaks if Toyota wants to get into an ad-war with equally wealthy Volkswagen, but it does mean alternative media outlets should have a levelled advertising playing field to compete with CNN. The same would go for a small fast food company trying to gain equal time against a McDonald’s ad campaign, but it would not apply if Burger King and McDonald’s wanted to square off in an ad war. This would not only give the consumer valuable information about what competing products exist in the marketplace, but it would encourage small and medium sized businesses to take out moderately priced ads where in the past, many would opt not to take out any.
3. The rule for big corporate politics
All ads advocating a political party, a politician or a political cause that cannot be reasonably described as a charity or not for profit activism activity should be banned from the platform until 3 months before an election. This would not include government sponsored apolitical initiatives such as “Invest in The Philippines” or “Visit Singapore”.
During the 3 month period that politicians and their backers are allowed to pay for sponsored content, there should be a spending cap of $500,000 per month, while smaller/independent candidates should have the option of boosting their own ads for a smaller price, so long as they can prove they have fewer resources.
Of course, data theft and data harvesting should be banned at a national level as I have written about previously:
Why this is necessary
In a free market society, it is difficult and at times even inadvisable to curtail advertising. Certain restrictions such as those on tobacco, alcohol and pornography ads have existed long before child friendly social media. However, since on Facebook and similar platforms one has to verify age, even advertisements for adult products wouldn’t pose a huge problem, as such advertisements can simply be blocked to users under the age of 18 or 21.
Politics however is different. If democracy truly means anything, it means that it can only exist separate from the sphere of advertising. While candidates in most western so-called democracies act like brands, a wider culture of political ethics should at least attempt to be fostered in order to roll back this unhealthy and undemocratic line of thinking.
The result will be that politicians will have to rely on non-sponsored content. If an individual truly likes a political speech and then his friends like the speech also, they will share it of their own volition and it will grow organically. This is real democracy: people making up their own minds and spreading their own views. In such a system, candidates like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton would still have their official pages for their content. They simply would not be able to push it using advertisements until three months before an election and even then, they would be barred from a spending spree.
A win-win compromise
At the end of the day, a company can make more money selling an actual product than by selling branded politicians. While there is big money in both, ultimately more people watch the Super Bowl than vote for Donald Trump and more people download Kanye West songs than vote for Hillary.
Thus, these proposals allow companies to utilise Facebook to promote their products and make money, while Facebook still gets a substantial deal of revenue from these ads/sponsored content. Likewise, free speech can be restored thus expanding Facebook’s apparently declining customer base, all the while politics is protected from becoming any more corrupt than it already is.
If one can protect the political process, individual liberty and corporate viability all at the same time, there is no reason not to embark on this win-win solution. The only problem is if there are conflicting interests, egos and devious schemes that go beyond a quest for clean money. Those who resist these proposals are automatically suspect of being some or all of these things.