Facebook Privacy Critics Ignore Benefits of Social Media

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Today’s hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Facebook’s use of consumer data took a much more aggressive tone than yesterday’s hearing in the Senate. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA), congresswoman for California’s 18th District, which includes Silicon Valley, was unwilling to make any concessions or listen to Mr. Zuckerberg’s full explanations of Facebook’s decisions. Democrats tended to focus more on user privacy and discrimination, while Republicans expressed concerns over Facebook’s role in content moderation and the facilitation of illicit activity. Neither side made much acknowledgement of the benefits Facebook has offered.

Facebook is not a tool designed to violate privacy nor fan the flames of hate. It and other social media platforms have been some of the most transformative innovations in recent memory. Neglect of the benefits that Facebook has conferred may lead to the “danger that Congress will rush in and over-regulate” as mentioned by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) yesterday.

Huge amounts of value have been created by allowing people to reconnect with old friends and relatives. The fostering of these rekindled relationships, and the maintenance of new ones, was unthinkable before the global interconnectivity that social media has enabled. International telephone calling on demand was introduced 50 years ago in 1968, at exorbitant cost by current standards. The widespread adoption of commercial email systems only began in 1995. Less than 10 years later, Facebook was brought into the world, decreasing the cost of communication to negligible levels, and contributing significantly to relationships without barriers.

Not only was this of immense personal value to all those who could keep in touch with those they were close to, but it enabled new forms of professional relationships. Social networking sites have allowed professional relationships to become less restricted, by allowing people to share their ideas and their skills with vast numbers of people that previously would never have noticed them. Expanded social networks are vital for individuals to achieve economic mobility and succeed in business endeavors, and social media has certainly contributed to expanding these networks. 

Economist Robert Gordon uses an example to explain declining innovativeness, asking whether we would rather give up indoor plumbing or our smartphones? While in the Western World, this may seem intuitive, in many parts of the developing world, in which indoor plumbing is still not the norm, this is a much trickier question. Smartphones and social networks have been transformed the lives of those in poorer countries in ways that would be less visible in developed nations.

It is not unreasonable to say that Facebook has done more to create business opportunities in much of the developing world, through providing its network and being directly involved in creating Internet infrastructure, than any program of foreign aid. The company has broken down geographical barriers by allowing those who would have otherwise never been able to imagine travelling to build friendships and access customers in faraway places.

The global contributions of social media innovation are well demonstrated in terms of human relationships and commerce, but we have also seen significant improvements to safety as well. When refugees are fleeing conflict zones, they often identify their whereabouts to others through Facebook. When a natural disaster or terrorist attack occurs, people often signal their safety to loved ones through Facebook. Being able to share this information to the whole world has increased the accuracy of data surrounding humanitarian issues, which in turn has improved interventions, reduced the anxieties of friends and family, and saved lives.

When critics raise the costs to privacy, it is worth noting that none of this would have been possible without us agreeing to make certain things public. Interconnectedness necessarily means less privacy. There’s a reason that things are “shared” to news feeds, because connecting to others cannot exist in a world of absolute privacy. Walled gardens do not facilitate the entry of new ideas or interactions.

Can the tools that facilitate relationships be used to break people apart? Of course. Without acknowledging these benefits, however, there is a risk that the cure for more egregious privacy violations ends up being worse than the disease. Social media sites are subject to all the same competitive pressures that other industries are in responding to consumer demand.

Peter Thiel once remarked that there’s been a lot of innovation in the world of bits, not as much in the world of atoms. The areas where innovation is often thought most important today, from finding alternative energy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels to improving transportation speeds and infrastructure, are stagnant.

It would be a much more valuable use of Congress’ time to focus on liberating the world of atoms from the shackles on its innovative capacity, rather than adding those shackles onto the world of bits. In the 1990s Congress began to embrace “permissionless innovation” online, and while mistakes were made along the way, we have seen significant progress has as well. This ethos has made the lives of billions of people better, and it should not be abandoned.

Facebook may have changed its motto from “move fast and break things” to “move fast with stable infrastructure,” but that’s no reason to prevent the next generation of entrepreneurs from breaking things in order to innovate. There are many legitimate concerns about how to improve Facebook’s operations, though these concerns need to be evaluated alongside the benefits, and approval should be left to the market. That way fixing them at Facebook does not cost the technology industry as a whole.