Should the Social Graph be a Public Utility?

August 29th, 2013

Evgeny Morozov suggests that it should be privatized, somewhat seriously (I think):

Were we to rebuild our information infrastructure from scratch, we would surely notice that the current system is awful for competition. How could we run things differently? One option might be to run the social graph as a public institution of sorts, with state regulators making sure that all companies get equal access to such crucial information. Many of our social connections predate—and might even outlive—both Google and Facebook. These companies have mapped them well, but this shouldn’t prevent us from thinking of alternative ways of mapping them and making them available. Thus, instead of pouring public money into building better search engines—a mission attempted and quickly aborted by some European politicians—governments can focus on ensuring that the data playing field remains as level as possible. Better search engines and social networking sites might then emerge on their own, without any need for extra public backing.

The scheme could have many other benefits. For example, the regulators would be able to exercise far greater control over how user data is collected and accessed by third parties. It should be possible to anonymize this data so that better personalized services can be built without compromising user privacy. The fears of “the filter bubble” are greatly exaggerated; personalization is not evil per se—it’s the data trails that it leaves in its wake that should trouble us.

As Google and Facebook garner more and more of our personal information, we will see more and more calls for Data regulation of those services. And Google and Facebook will continue to hold up the First Amendment as a defense.

As I argue in What Happens if Data is Speech, this argument will have some, but limited vitality going forward. This will soon be the next regulatory battle of our age.