'Nationalize' Facebook and Twitter as Public Goods

Vasant Dhar
By Vasant Dhar
The ejection of President Trump by Facebook and Twitter shines a bright spotlight on the troubling issues around social media platforms. It raises a fundamental question about the power they wield in society and, in particular, their impact on the future of public discourse and democracy. If they can cut the most powerful person on the planet at the knees without warning, they can do it to anyone anytime. In effect, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey just fired a shot across the bow of lawmakers: While they make the rules, Zuckerberg and Dorsey just showed them who wields the ultimate power.

Clearly, social media platforms have outgrown their initial mission due to their sheer size and the fact that they now constitute the “public square.” Indeed, as Barack Obama noted in 2017, social media platforms needed “to have a conversation about their business model that recognizes they are a public good as well as a commercial enterprise.”

That conversation never got started until it was too late, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal made it abundantly clear that they are purely a commercial enterprise even as they provide a public service — but entirely on their terms. They operate in a twilight zone, protected by Section 230 against any liability. They exercise complete control over how to maximize revenues from their network even if it creates serious negative “externalities” such as polarization, inciting normal people into doing things such as riot that they might not otherwise do.

Read the full The Hill article.

Vasant Dhar is Professor of Information Systems.