What resources did the public administrator charter social media to manage?

Western government has followed a basic pattern for centuries. Enter a geographic area and settle it by managing its resources. The activities surrounding the extraction, processing, and distribution of resources are regulated and taxed by government with proceeds going toward the maintenance of government operations and institutions and the promotion of the social fabric. Government administers the control of resources via private hands by issuing “trading companies” a license to carry out the economic and financial activity necessary for resource management including the sale of finished products and services to consumers.

As a side note, you will find going forward that I will refer to private sector actors as “traders” or “trading companies.” Sometimes I will refer to private actors as merchants as well. The practice of trade and its importance in the activities of national government will be addressed more in future blogs but for now when I discuss the private sector I am describing the exchange of goods and services in markets where one asset, i.e. cash, is exchanged for another asset, i.e. goods, services, and the public administrator is regulating those exchanges on some level.

You will also find going forward that I will use public administrator and government interchangeably. Most Americans include the legislative and judicial in their perception of government. While the legislature and judicial branches set the legal parameters within which public administration occurs, government is about action hence the term executive when describing the branch that takes actual action in carrying out policy. Thus, arises another reason for using public administrator when describing action taken by government.

I can at a firm like US Steel and argue that they were chartered to create a taxable event in the mining of metals used to create steel. Archer Daniel Midland was likely chartered to create a taxable event in food production. Delta Airlines, chartered to create a taxable event in transportation. And Facebook? What resources has Facebook been chartered to manage and organize?

Given its mission to connect the world, Facebook’s charter appears to have been granted for the extraction and management of personal information in order to build an audience to which traders can advertise their goods and services. The taxable events public administrators are hoping for include the purchase of advertisement from Facebook which leads to taxable corporate income, and sales taxes generated from the sale of a trader’s goods and services with taxes going to state and local governments.

I am calling out Facebook because they are currently king of social media, but this analysis of public administration and social media could apply to any other social media firm including Twitter or LinkedIn. I guess a significant number of academics would not take to the argument that the government (and by government I am referring to the entire federal-state-local structure) issued a charter to mine the data of American consumers but that is the resource that Facebook and other social media sites extract, organize, and distribute for the purpose of making a profit, a taxable event.

Facebook’s business model for garnering consumer information and converting it into profit has been on Congress’ radar for months now especially given Facebook’s poor stewardship over personal data released to third parties. Implementing modifications to how it manages privacy may have a negative impact on net income, reducing the amount available for taxation. Last week, Facebook stock took a one-day hit falling 20% in value as concerns circulated about how its implementation of new privacy initiatives might impact its costs of doing business. I doubt if this price fall included any potential Trump administration action on privacy, but if not, any additional action on the part of the Trump administration or independent “Fourth Branch” agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission may contribute additional headache for the company and its shareholders.

Facebook the Common Carrier

A couple weeks after Mark Zuckerberg made his appearance before Congress to describe the privacy practices and overall business model of Facebook, two media personalities, Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, appeared before the House judiciary committee to describe the discriminatory treatment they were allegedly receiving from Facebook. The two women, known as “Diamond and Silk” to their fans, argued that Facebook intentionally changed their algorithms to keep their conservative political viewpoints from appearing in the news feeds of their followers on the social media platform.

The hearing provided heated exchanges between the two Trump-adoring personalities and congressmen sitting on the left of the political spectrum. Engagement between Diamond and Silk and two congressmen in particular, Barbara Jordan Lee, Democrat of Texas, and Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, caught my attention for the heat it generated in the hearing room.

Mr Johnson took issue at first with the subject matter of the entire hearing, driving home his point that the committee would best spend its time focusing on the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the November 2016 elections or Mr Trump’s purported attempts to remove Robert Mueller from the election tampering investigation.  He then proceeded to disparage the credibility of Diamond and Silk by asking repeatedly whether or not they were paid by the Trump campaign. After the second or third time Diamond and Silk answered “no”, the congressman should have moved on but he kept asking the same question and brought back the same taint of ridiculousness he managed to pour on himself when failing in 2010 to articulate a simple concept of overpopulation of the island of Guam by projecting that the island would “capsize” if additional American military personnel were stationed there.

Ms Lee didn’t much better in the get it together department when she gave up two minutes of her time to introduce two kids visiting congress during bring your offspring to work day and tried to get time back in order to keep up an attack using vague questions about the timing of communications between Diamond and Silk and Facebook. Ms Lee also repeatedly asked Diamond and Silk if they had received payment from the Trump campaign. After answering no at least three times, Ms Lee just kept asking the same question. By this time Louis Gohmert, Republican of Texas, dropped the gavel repeatedly letting his home girl know that question time was over.

The only saving grace during the questioning of Diamond and Silk came from Steve King, Republican of Iowa. In his questioning he alluded to similarity between Facebook and FedEx, where, like FedEx, Facebook promises to deliver a message from user to follower. If the company is preventing those messages from being received then they may be discriminating.

Facebook prefers to describe itself as a digital commune where the world connects over a bottle of Coke, a smile, and a blunt. As a user, I look at Facebook as an entertainment medium and a channel for my blog. But, over a Coke and a smile sans blunt I can also see why it could be called a common carrier.

Roger LeRoy Miller and Gaylord A. Jentz define a common carrier as a transportation service publicly licensed to provide transportation services to the general public. A common carrier must arrange carriage for all who apply, within certain limitations. The delivery of goods to a common carrier creates a bailment relationship between the shipper and the common carrier.

A bailment is a situation in which the personal property of one person (the bailor) is entrusted to another (the bailee), who is obligated to return the bailed property to the bailor or dispose of it as directed.

The common carrier’s standard of care over the received goods is based on strict liability. This means that the carrier is absolutely responsible for damage to the property in its possession with the exception of five common law exceptions:

  1. An act of God.
  2. An act of a public enemy.
  3. An order of a public authority.
  4. An act of the shipper.
  5. The inherent nature of the goods.

Calling Facebook a common carrier could raise the issue of lost profit. Diamond and Silk could claim lost profits from Facebook’s failure to deliver their messages to their followers. Diamond and Silk would have to provide evidence that the messages are being delivered for the purpose of making money and not just the expression of an opinion. Diamond and Silk would also have to provide evidence that a clear communication of profit motive was given to Facebook and that Facebook understood that communication.

Facebook’s net neutrality posse never had this scenario in mind when they pushed for more regulation of internet freedom via the imposition of net neutrality rules based on a telephone statute passed in 1934. Nor did they foresee the very openness on the internet they advocate for would lead to third-party abuses from violating user privacy to one nation-state upsetting the elections of another nation-state in cyberspace. Unfortunately, to keep Facebook in line with its commercial users’ expectations, common carrier treatment of Facebook may be an option.

 

Opt-in, Opt-out policy appropriate for addressing online privacy

In May 2017, U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn introduced H.R.2520, the Browser Act, a bill designed to provide consumers with some control over the use of their personal information. Specifically, consumers that use broadband access services or websites or applications providing subscription, purchase, account, or search engine services are provided, depending on the sensitivity of personal information, the choice to opt-in or opt-out of policies used by these services to manage consumer information.

For sensitive information, opt-in approval must be expressly granted by the consumer. Sensitive information includes:

  • financial information;
  • health information;
  • information about children under the age of thirteen;
  • social security numbers information;
  • information regarding a consumer’s geo-location;
  • web browsing information: or
  • information on the history of usage of software programs or mobile applications.

Consumers must be provided the opportunity to give opt-out approval for non-sensitive information.

Mrs Blackburn’s intent with the legislation is to equalize broadband access providers and edge content providers under the eyes of the Federal Trade Commission, the federal agency responsible for consumer protection and anti-trust law enforcement. In my opinion, this is not a far off from former Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s goal of openness and transparency throughout the entire internet ecosystem; from consumer to broadband access provider to websites provided by edge providers.

What Mrs Blackburn’s bill also does is address information asymmetries, where edge content providers are viewed as having more knowledge on the value of consumer information that they extract from websites than the consumer does herself. The consumer cannot answer the question, “Is the value of the information I receive from online, x, greater than the value of the information that I give up, p, where that information is private?

It is not readily apparent whether H.R.2520 was also designed to save the consumer from asking this question: ” Why should I pay for an economic good i.e. privacy that isn’t Google’s to sell in the first place?”

Professor Caleb S. Fuller of Grove City College describes privacy as an economic good, something that the consumer wants more of. Most consumers are not willing to pay to protect this good, even though they know that firms like Google are collecting this information for free. For example, according to Professor Fuller’s research, 90% of Google’s users know that their “mouse droppings” are being tracked.While 29% of Google’s users don’t mind being tracked, 71% do. Their reasoning, according to Professor Fuller includes the fear of price discrimination based on their information; the receipt of spam advertising; the risk of identity theft; and the “dis-utility in just not knowing who knows what.”

One equitable solution, in my opinion, would be for Google and other edge providers to pay their subscribers to provide private data. Google could provide an offering schedule based on the sensitivity of the information it wishes to purchase. Consumers would have to consider the value of the privacy they give up in exchange for the value obtained from accessing web content. I wouldn’t expect every consumer to sell their data. Google will wisely set limits on its offers and a significant portion of consumers unable to get a price they want will settle for the old private data for access exchange that they have been conducting for two decades.

The opt-in, opt-out policy mitigates the work that the consumer should put in to determine the value of her data, but gives her the final say over how her private data can be used. Unfortunately this is also the down side where the market won’t be used to truly determine the real value that can be sold.