Facebook is a Canadian utility

So many Canadians use Facebook that it should be regulated like any other Canadian utility. No broadcaster or telephone company would operate in Canada without government oversight. We should make it comply with our regulations as with other communications utilities.

      image: Tod Maffin

It’s the most-used Canadian social media. Ninety-four percent of Canadians aged 18 to 44 have a Facebook account. Overall, 84 per cent of us have an account and 80 per cent check the site daily according to The State of Social Media in Canada, 2017.

Now, Facebook is about to become more integrated into our lives with an announcement May 1, 2108, of a dating service. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said: “And if we are committed to building meaningful relationships, then this is perhaps the most meaningful of all.”

Facebook’s phenomenal rise has made it a monopoly. Canadian professors Andrew Clement and David Lyon say:

“In light of Facebook’s overwhelming grip on the social networking industry, the commissioner of competition should investigate the company for its monopolistic behaviour (Globe and Mail, April 23, 2018).”

Facebook’s ascent has left governments behind. Other communications industries have taken decades to mature and regulations have kept pace. Regulators have had time to insure that TV, radio and telephone companies meet Canadian standards of privacy, identity and sovereignty.

“The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) should learn to treat social-media enterprises as utilities,” says Clement and Lyon.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the nature of Facebook’s grip. It seems so personal that there’s a conspiracy theory claiming Facebook is eavesdropping on people’s conversations through their smartphones and using that insight to serve ads. Tech expert Avery Swartz finds this ironic:

“People find it hard to believe that computers could know so much about them, even though they are voluntarily feeding their information into the machine. For private citizens, Facebook’s targeted advertising is creepy. For advertisers, it’s captivating (Globe and Mail, April 23, 2018).”

Facebook doesn’t sell users’ data to advertisers. It sells access to data, so advertisers can target their ads to specific audiences. No wonder that advertisers like Facebook. They can place an ad for as little as one dollar a day and ad campaigns can be created for $100.

Targeted advertising is hardly unique to Facebook. It’s been around much longer than the internet. Big businesses target consumers by placing ads on certain TV stations at specific times. They distribute flyers to targeted neighbourhoods.

However, the issue is not targeted advertising. It’s the way that Facebook treats Canadians and whether its practices align with the values and practices imposed on other communications utilities.

There’s been a campaign to #DeleteFacebook but given how integrated the social medium is in the lives of Canadians, it’s not likely to succeed. An Angus Reid survey revealed that only four per cent plan to delete their accounts.

“Given its business model,” add Clement and Lyon, “Facebook on its own cannot meet the objectives of Canadian media regulations – advancing Canada’s identity and sovereignty, its social and economic fabric, universal accessibility, neutrality, affordability, openness, public accountability and rights protection.”

Canadians like Facebook. Now’s the time help Facebook like Canadians by making it truly ours.

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In defence of Facebook

I like Facebook but I’m not an apologist for the social media giant.

Facebook has done things wrong. They failed to prevent Cambridge Analytica from gathering detailed information of millions of users. The method used was especially disturbing. They developed a quiz in which 270,000 people responded. Then the response snowballed to 50 million as data from friends was gleaned.

However, while Cambridge Analytica’s tactics were sneaky, they didn’t get anything more than what they could have obtained through a paid ad. Facebook says they are going to make the source of those ads transparent. CEO Mark Zuckerberg says: “People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.” About time.

Last year, Facebook admitted that Russian provocateurs bought 3,000 ads.  The ads were insidious because they generated anxiety over social issues: immigrants, gun rights and the LGBT community. This disquiet played well in the hands of the populist Donald Trump.

Facebook’s mistake was that it didn’t do enough to prevent such abuses. Zuckerberg said so on CNN: “This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data.”

Facebook performs a valuable service. It connects me to friends and family and a larger community of Kamloopsians. I have found friends from decades ago through Facebook. I can correspond in Spanish with Mexican friends with the help of Google translate.

Grassroots action groups are made on Facebook. I learn of musicians and artists coming to town through Facebook. The city posts notices on Facebook. Small businesses can advertise by just starting a Facebook page. I can send complaints to big businesses by just posting on their page.

Russian ads are not unique. All Canadian political parties pay for ads on Facebook that target specific groups, and all have detailed information on voters.

It’s not just Facebook. Every time I use a “points” card at a store, information is collected. Any time I use Google services –the browser, Gmail, or YouTube- my behaviour is tracked for the sake of advertisers.

Such a wealth of intimate data can be used for good or evil. It could be used to determine the democratic will of citizens. It could be sold to the highest bidder. Facebook needs to be regulated.

Zuckerberg himself admits it; although his reservations are revealed in his double negative: “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he said. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated?”

When Marshall McLuhan said that “The medium is the message,” he meant that nature of media affects society more than its content. Just as the printing press changed our perception of the world, so has social media.

The content of Facebook is staggering; more than just kittens and social agitation. It embraces our global digital collective consciousness. Embedded in the algorithms are the wishes and desires of one-third of the world’s population.

But more than the content, Facebook represents a new media which is altering our perceptions in ways yet to be discovered. Resistance to social media is simply an indication of how disruptive and new the technology is.