Facebook, Vogons, autocratic regimes and the loss of democracy

Today Facebook announced that it will shut down Facebook Governance. Facebook what? Yeah, exactly. The idea behind Facebook Governance was democratic participation and dynamic user feedback about policy changes, privacy and so forth. You might be aware that Facebook acts more or less like a data-kraken and the governance idea was to bring a bit transparency into Facebook.  You might also know that whenever a new Facebook feature (*cough* Timeline, *cough face recognition) is introduced, it is activated by default. This is of some concern one might think, because changes in the Facebook policy could have major implications for the users personally. There are several documented cases where future employers checked the profiles of their job applicants. Now imagine that Facebook decides to publish your private photos with a new feature which is activated by default. This is of some concern right? Exactly! This is the reason why Facebook Governance was introduced: to ask the users for their feedback and to uncover problematic feature-updates in advance, before the shit hits the fan. Facebook argues that this was never used and therefore there is no need for the only mechanism of democratic participation. This line of reasoning sounds familiar for everyone who studies autocratic regimes. Let’s take a closer look.

Is it true that users do not care about privacy and what happens to Facebook (and private data) in the future? Not really. The fact that you probably never have heard of Facebook Governance leads to the answer. It was hidden and I mean really, really hidden. I tried to find it on the Facebook page and I had to google how to find it. This as a highly resemblance with the „Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“ where Arthur Dent argues with the demolition firm which is going to destroy his house. The foreman argues that the complaining files where on on public display and the Arthur easily could have objected to the demolition plans:

„Prosser: But the plans were on display.
Arthur Dent: On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar.
Prosser: That’s the display department.
Arthur Dent: With a torch.
Prosser: The lights had probably gone.
Arthur Dent: So had the stairs.
Prosser: But you did see the notice, didn’t you?
Arthur Dent: Oh, yes. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign outside the door saying „Beware of the Leopard.“ Ever thought of going into advertising?“

Arguing that no one actually used Facebook Governance seems to be absurd when you hide it so well that no one has even the slightest possibility to find it. Whenever Facebook launches a new feature there is advertisement for it and you can be sure to hear about it in the media. Not in the Facebook Governance case. The true reason only can be that Facebook itself has no interest in listening to its users. The same holds true for autocratic regimes. Decisions go top-down and never bottom-up. Democratic participation is a pain in the ass because citizens complain about but living standards and human rights violations or in our case about continuous privacy violations and general dissatisfaction with new features (Timeline again). As an autocratic leader you have no sympathies for the wishes of your citizens/users.

Ever heard of the democratic peace theory? It states that in democracies citizens do not want war because they as tax-payers have to bear the costs of war (and human losses). There could easily be a democratic peace theory for Facebook: users do not want to pay for stuff, they do not want advertisement, they do not want that you sell their data to third parties – or to put it differently: they do not want to bear the burden of Facebook trying to earn money on the backs of its users. Users or citizens just want to be social, chatting and laughing with one another. That is the whole purpose of a social network and that is the reason why Mark Zuckerberg invented it in the first place. Now Facebook has no empathy for that. They are like the Vogons in this regard:

„People of Earth, your attention, please. This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system. And regrettably, your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.

There’s no point in acting surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display at your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for 50 of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now. … What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? Oh, for heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams. I don’t know, apathetic bloody planet, I’ve no sympathy at all.“

All quotes come from „The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“, a wonderful and thoughtful  book by Douglas Adams

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