How Involved in Social Media Should the Government Be?

Last week, Facebook put-out a 26-page retort to the FTC’s preliminary report on privacy regulation. Unsurprisingly, the document wreaks of economic interests, but it also raises some questions about who should foot the bill for social media.

Through its retorts, Facebook seemed to be appealing to precisely to the kind of concerns that policy makers wrestle with daily. As Fast Company put it, Facebook reminded “the FTC how much social media has done for the government itself, the advancement of democracy, and the growing cottage industry of social software.”

In a nutshell, Facebook pretty much said “Look, we know you have privacy concerns. But social media is a really valuable a tool to (1) you, (2) the principles you stand for, and (3) the economy as a whole. And the easiest way to foot the bill is by selling user data.

The Rebuttals

Facebook’s most compelling rebuttals addressed the areas of politics, the economy, and technological innovations.

In the political arena, Facebook pointed out how social media media has equipped both government and citizens to enhance democracy. On the governmental side, Facebook noted how social media promotes transparency, “as evidenced by […] White House Press Secretary’s Twitter feed and the fact that more than 70 federal agencies have Facebook pages.” And on the citizen side, Facebook drew on examples such as Iran, Colombia, Tunisia and Egypt to illustrate how social media is furthering the cause of democracy.

As for economic interests, Facebook argued that social media is a “crucial engine for economic growth and job creation.” Specifically, Facebook pointed to the “Hundreds of thousands of application developers have built businesses on Facebook Platform.” The point being that any significant setback for social media as a whole would have serious economic implications.

Finally, Facebook also pointed to so many unpredictable innovations that could come from social media. As an example, Facebook cited how Caller ID has become a standard feature of calling, but would have never been possible had telephone companies been prevented from sharing callers’ data with the receiving part. Facebook also pointed to how Google Flu Trends out-performs many other outbreak detection tools, and wouldn’t be possible if users had perfect privacy.

Value: Estimated, Perceived, and Gained

Despite the fact that Facebook stand to lose or gain a lot depending on how the FTC decides to regulate the industry, the company does raise some strong points about the value of social media. Specifically, social media can enhance democratic processes, contribute to economic recovery and prosperity, and lead to so many other innovations that may increase our quality of life.

We know that social media is something that we, as a society, should keep exploring.  The question remains: Who should foot the bill for these social tools?

If social media is as valuable to the well-being of democracy as Facebook would have us believe, then perhaps it counts as a democratic right or fundamental infrastructure. Just like freedom of information or the emergency broadcast system, social media might just be valuable enough that it deserves the same protection of any other legal right.

If social media (and the information access it provides) could be counted as a democratic right or entitlement, however, we can’t really leave the private sector to look after it. Rather, it would better fall under the responsibilities of an elected government.

Similarly, if social media is, indeed, a linchpin for economic prosperity, it might again be better addressed by economic policy than by the private sector. After all, if Facebook sank tomorrow, the economic fall-out would be considerable.

In addition to the “hundreds of thousands of developers” who earn a living from Facebook, there would be all the marketers and agencies that would feel the hit in their client portfolios. The economic ripple from those two sectors alone might just enough to cause a social crash big enough to resemble the dot com bubble bursting.

The Inefficiencies of Government Regulation

Of course, handing social media over to the government would backfire for a number of reasons. First, technological innovation tends to be driven by the incentive of private enterprise — not the noblesse oblige of the public sector. Simply put, when an organization is motivated by profit, it’s more likely to attract the right talent and devise strategies that account for scarcity and other real-world, market factors.

Second, bureaucracy and innovation aren’t really compatible. Checks and balances might help keep governments honest. But in a social networking environment, they’d only serve as so much red-tape, making it impossible to respond to sudden changes in technology or the market.

Finally, it seems unlikely that users would have any interest in a government operated social network, or be comfortable giving that much data to Big Brother. After all, the government already has so much other data on us that giving them access to our social data would create too complete of a picture.

An Imperfect Opportunity

Social media is a natural step in the evolution of communication technology. We thrive as a species because we’re social creatures that share information with one another.

Now that social media has shown too much promise and potential as a communication medium, we can’t just put it back in the bag while we figure out the answers to all the questions that social media has raised:

  • What are the reasonable limits of personal privacy?
  • What social tools should be considered essential?
  • How can we afford to pay for the research and development of social tools?

What is clear is that the private sector is much better equipped fulfill the potential of social media.` What isn’t clear is how much leeway it should have with our data as it endeavors to fund the process. As Facebook’s own rebuttals noted, “For Facebook–like most other online service providers–getting this balance right is a matter of survival.”

About CT Moore

A former Staff Editor here at, CT Moore is a recovering agency hack with over a decade experience leveraging search, social media, and content marketing to help brands meet their business goals online. He currently provides digital strategy consulting to start-ups, SMBs, enterprise level companies through his consultancy Socialed Inc.. CT is also an accomplished blogger and speaker who educates groups and companies on how they can better leverage different online channels.

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