First Stop on the Electronic Silk Road: “Facebookistan”
Who rules how Facebook connects more than nine hundred million monthly users, some 80 percent outside of the United States?
Facebook, now connecting one tenth of all humanity, has become its own nation, complete with currency and international diplomats. To achieve citizenship, all a person must do is share the data of their lives with the nation of “Facebookistan.” As Anupam Chander reveals in his new book, The Electronic Silk Road: How the Web Binds the World Together in Commerce, Facebook knows so much more about its users than just their account information. It knows their interests, who they are friends with, and who they don’t want to be friends with anymore. It can identify those people automatically in pictures they upload. It even gathers information about its users from their friends, who have allowed Facebook access to email account contact lists. So who makes the rules that govern how that information is used?
Nations (in the traditional sense of the word) have a strong interest in this question, both to protect themselves and to protect their citizens. Governments seeking to safeguard their power by controlling freedom of speech make demands of Facebook to share the information that it gathers on their citizens, or to restrict the sharing of dissident ideas on its platform. On the other side the spectrum, some governments have demanded that Facebook stop collecting so much information to protect the privacy of their citizens.
The Electronic Silk Road is a reminder for the next time you travel on online that the services you engage with have complex political and economic implications. Companies such as Facebook and Google tell the public and themselves that their expansion into every aspect of day to day life is a benevolent providing of services. However, as more and more of business and pleasure are lived online, opting out is less and less feasible and the importance of regulation to protect the public increases. The question of who the regulator should be remains up for debate.