I was oblivious to the real significance of Facebook in everyday life until the company disabled my personal, private thomhartmann account. The list of âpossibleâ reasons they posted for doing this included âimpersonating a celebrity,â so maybe they shut me down because they thought I pretending to be that guy whoâs aÂ talk show hostÂ andÂ author. (Facebook, if youâre reading this, IÂ amÂ that guy.)
Itâs also possible somebody at Facebook took offense to myÂ interviewing Judd LegumÂ around that time about the groundbreaking research heâs been publishing over atÂ popular.infoÂ pointing out theÂ right-wing slantÂ Facebookâs corporate management and founder have taken. Fact is, though, I have no idea why they did it.
When they first disabled my account and asked me to upload my driverâs license (which I did at least seven times over several weeks), I figured it was a mistake. Then, a month or two ago, they delivered the final verdict: I was out. I could âdownloadâ all my information if I wanted before they finally closed the door, but even when I tried to create a new account using my personal email address, they blocked my attempt saying that I already had a (disabled) account and thus couldnât create another.
My first response was to say, on the air, the truth that I only checked Facebook once a week on average, and only followed close friends and my widely scattered relatives, having configured my personal account to be as private as possible. I figured I could do without knowing what my cousinsâ kids, or my nieces and nephews, were up to; I could just call them or send them Christmas cards, after all. And theÂ Salem InternationalÂ private group of international relief workers I was a member of could keep me up to date through our email listserv.
What Iâve discovered in the weeks since, particularly when one of my Salem friends in Germany was badly injured in a car accident last week, is that I was shockingly reliant on Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends. As theÂ Joni Mitchell songÂ goes, you donât know what youâve got till itâs gone.
Which raises for me the questionâhas Facebook gone from merely being a destination on the internet to something so interwoven in our lives that it should now be considered part of the commons and regulated as such?
Is it time to discuss taking Facebook out of private, for-profit hands?
Or, alternatively, is it time for the federal government to create a national town square, an everypersonâsÂ civic center, to compete with it?
The history of Europe and the United States,Â particularly throughout the 19th century, often tells the story of how wealthy and powerful men would congregate in exclusive membership-only menâs clubs to determine the fate and future of governments, businesses, and even local communities. Youâll find them woven into much of the literature of that era, fromÂ DickensÂ toÂ DoyleÂ toÂ Poe.
Because these clubs had strict membership requirements, they were often at the core of governmental and business power systems, helping maintain wealthy white male domination of society. The rules for both initial and continuing membership were typically developed and maintained by majority or even consensus agreement of their members, although the homogeneity of that membership pretty much insured that women, men of color, and men of âlowerâ social or economic status never had a say in public or private institutional governance.
Then, at the cusp of the 20th century, things changed.
TheÂ Panic of 1893Â crashed over 600 banks, closed 16,000 businesses, and pushed one in five American workers out of a job. That, in turn, provoked a strong progressive backlash in the United States, including a celebration across the nation when, following the 1901Â death of President McKinley, his vice president, Theodore Roosevelt,Â came out publicly as a progressive himself.
The first decade and a half of the 20th century saw an explosion ofÂ progressive reforms, best remembered as the time when Roosevelt and progressive Republican President Taft (who followed him) engaged in massive trust-busting, breaking up Americaâs biggest monopolies to make room for local, small, and medium-sized businesses to grow.
An often-overlooked phenomenon that also spread across the nation during that era was the creation of egalitarian, public civic centers, usually built and owned by local or regional governments.
While menâs clubs still were places where the brokers of great power and wealth could congregate and socialize (andÂ still are today), these new publicly owned and open-to-all (or, until the 1960s, open-to-all-white-people) civic centers replaced the much smaller and less comfortable public parks and private pubs as places where average citizens could socialize, strategize, and form political movements at no cost.
Heavily used (along with public schoolsâmany states passed laws authorizingÂ their auditoriums to be used as civic centers) byÂ progressive political movementsÂ like the suffragists, these public squares became an essential building block of movement politics.
Today, the public dialogues and even local or regional discussions about local and national politics have moved from the menâs clubs (1700-1900) to the civic centers (1901-1990s) to the internet. And the largest host of them is Facebook.
While Facebook is currentlyÂ embroiled in a controversyÂ over whether itâs wrong for it to allow Trumpâs political advertising that contains naked lies, the debate over fully or partiallyÂ nationalizing the platformÂ has gotten much less coverage.
But itâs an important issue and deserves more attention. Facebook was so critical to Donald Trumpâs 2016 election efforts, for example, thatÂ his Facebook manager, Brad Parscale, has been elevated to managing the entire Trump 2020 effortâagain, with Facebook at the center of it.
Political change flows out of public dialogue.
The American Revolution would probably never have gotten off the ground were it not for public meeting placesâthe most famous beingÂ Sam Adamsâ tavern. Similarly, churches open to the public (although privately owned but regulated on a nonprofit basis) were the core of the 20th centuryâsÂ Civil Rights movement.
Facebook has, for millions, replaced these public placesâfrom pubs to churches to civic centersâas a nexus for social, cultural and political interaction. As such, itâs come to resemble a public communications utility, a part of theÂ natural commons.
When radio achieved the equivalent ofÂ four hours of âface timeâ a dayÂ for the average American, inÂ 1927Â andÂ 1934Â we passed comprehensive regulation of the industry to prevent the spread of disinformation and mandate responsible broadcasting practices.
Similarly, our nationâs telephone systems have been bothÂ nationalizedÂ (during World War I) and repeatedlyÂ heavily regulatedÂ since 1913 toÂ ensure usersâ privacyÂ and prevent the exploitation of customers by âMa Bell.â
Facebook has,Â for many Americans, become a primary source of news as well as a social, political, and civic activity center. It controlsÂ about a thirdÂ of all web traffic.
If starting from scratch, it would be hard to imagine such a central nexus for such critical interactions without envisioning it as a natural commons, like a civic center or broadcasting service.
The companyâs control of that commons in ways that invade Americansâ privacy and disrupt democracy have been so egregious that Senator Ron Wyden, one of Americaâs most outspoken digital privacy advocates, has openly speculated aboutÂ sending Mark Zuckerberg to prison. As Senator Wyden and others point out, we regulate radio, TV and newspaper advertising; how did Facebook get a free pass when they have a larger ânewsâ reach than any other medium?
One solution is to regulate Facebook like a public utility. Alternatively, the federal government couldÂ take majority ownershipÂ of the companyâor fund an alternative to itâso it or the government version of it can be run not just to enrich executives and stockholders but, like the Ma Bell of old, to also serve the public good.
At least in the days of Ma Bell, I had access to a phone regardless of my politics, and the company couldnât sell access to the contents of my phone calls.
This article was produced byÂ Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
This article was originally published at OurFuture on December 10, 2019. Reprinted with permission.