Selling Democracy, Revisited

Why do decentralisation and federation matter, and how do we use them?

My last missive discussed the technical (and to a lesser degree, the social) arguments for a decentralised, federated approach to social media.

It didn’t entirely answer a kind of a big question: Why do we need it?

In a word: Jurisdiction.

There’s no end in sight to Facebook’s 14-year apology tour, and following the announcement that they’re going to take their ball and go home unless Australian news media stop asking for a share of the pyre—er, pie—it’s abundantly clear that something has to happen.

In a conveniently (but not deliberately) timed piece of news, Facebook has shown that it’s willing to take steps to control malicious activity, especially when it comes to state-to-state mis/disinformation operations. Their globe-bestriding status makes it possible for them to analyse and avoid these abuses.

But reach is exactly why their platform is being used for these ops. And lord knows they’ve been effective. Carole Cadwalladr’s exposé of Cambridge Analytica makes it abundantly clear that the platform is a near-ideal factory for weapons-grade propaganda.

I’m counting the hours before the folks at Facebook begin to leverage that power to dig themselves like a tick into our digital landscape. The only thing that keeps them from doing it right now is potential loss of trust among their audience, and the fear that acting in one nation’s favour might prejudice their relationship with another.

In short, they’re still trying to have their cake and eat it too.

Australia’s decision to foist regulation on the company upsets that delicate balance. Now, they have to decide. Publicly at least, Josh Frydenberg has stated that his government won’t respond to Facebook’s extortionate plan to simply turn off all Australian news.

But I expect that if there isn’t a strategic national interest conversation going on right now between the platform and the state, there will be. It’s also highly likely that Facebook will realise that Rupert Murdoch is their adversary, and the Australian Government is simply the hatchet man.

Once it does, all bets are off. Can, as Willie Nelson so coyly put it, old age and treachery beat youth and skill? Not forever. And, I suspect, not this time.

But if Facebook continues to take an antagonistic stance, there will be blood. And they will be subjected to regulation. And it will lead inexorably to more.

AT&T survived its breakup. Microsoft survived the legal sanctions it was burdened with, as well as the commodification of its operating system and software. Despite a balls to the wall rear-guard action against free software, open protocols and interoperability in the nineties and early oughties, it’s still ticking along just fine.

Google will survive as well, because it can argue much more convincingly for the good it does. With a lower evil index, it presents a smaller attack surface for its adversaries. And frankly, it could drop Google News tomorrow and remain the company everyone thinks it is.

But Facebook is a different kettle of fish. Along with its liberating and democratising influence, it brings the potential to quite literally overturn societies, inflict immense damage on personal lives, and oust regimes.

They’re doomed by their own dominance, and damned by their own tacit admission in their threats against Australian media that they actually have market dominance. The one defence a monopoly has is not to abuse that position, and that was the first card they threw away.

That’s why, no matter what play they choose, they’re going to find themselves coping with the perils of interacting with—and accepting liability in—all of the world’s jurisdictions.

It won’t all happen tomorrow, and it won’t all happen because of this stoush with Murdoch. But it will happen.

So if they’re smart, they’ll hive off the risky part, the one the plays an editorial role. They’ll either fragment themselves into a federation of national operations (more or less like every multinational that deals in physical goods), or if they’re really smart, they’ll open up their platform on a pay-for-play basis, and allow other companies to cling remora-like to their data corpus.

That makes for more modest profits, but it wins those profits with next to no accountability.

This is a terrible outcome for some people, of course. The moment you force an information service to work within the constraints of an authoritarian environment, you place people at risk.

The trade-off here is that people would only be at risk from their own authoritarians, and not their strategic rivals and adversaries.

People call this balkanisation. I get it. I don’t like it either, but commercialised and commoditised access to Facebook’s user base is really the only way we preserve anything of worth for a great many people. The stakes are high, and sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good.

And that’s why decentralisation and federation are a good idea for Facebook today.