An Open Letter to Congress Regarding Social Media Giants and Their Exploitation of Data Producers

To All Concerned,

Facebook is in the news and before the Legislature again, and I fear the discussion won’t include a topic central to why and how companies like Facebook are so able to commit public safety compromises and customer abuses, why they are able to so freely bully and suppress some opinions while promoting others, and why no amount of censorship or policing will make it right.

We are in a new era of production.  In the age of Industrialization, companies that produced value to society were very easy to spot. Railroads were built across the country.  Steel mills poured steel for buildings and rails.  Wires ran for telegraphs and electric lights.  Developers built, factories produced, and goods moved through their life cycle from raw material to finished products with payments rendered at each stage to the ones who produced the thing of value.  But understand, it is a grave mistake to allow ourselves to believe for a second that we are “customers” of Facebook or any of the other social media companies.  It is also a mistake to assume that we are their product, and that we willingly trade our data for access to their platforms.  In truth, these companies exist to sell data to those who use data.  The data market is larger today than any other sector of human commerce has ever been across the full breadth of our species.  If data is their raw material, then we are neither their customers nor their product, but their producers. With every click, every website visit, every video created or watched, we are creating the data that they sell.  It originates with us.  It exists because of our activity and effort.  The users of social media today are the single largest unpaid, uncompensated workforce in the history of the world.  

Lots of companies have managed to shift their model to take advantage of existing ownership instead of recreating infrastructure.  AirBnB is a hotel chain that doesn’t have to own hotels.  Uber and Lyft are taxi services that don’t need to own taxis.  The difference is, those companies pay their producers for their effort.  They compensate the owners of the house or the car when it makes money for them.  Facebook stands out precisely because the people that create its product aren’t given so much as a second thought, let alone compensation.

Much has been made about the idea of somehow tying a person’s data to their identity, somehow solving the problem of how to allow a person ownership of their data.  That may be a technical challenge that’s beyond our capacity right now, but one thing is certainly not beyond us, and it is a thing that would reign in these companies more effectively than any other measure could.  Companies like Facebook know exactly what data they sell and where it came from.  Validated data is the only data that’s worth anything, so they absolutely know from where they’ve collected the data they sell.  If the originators of data were paid some fraction of the value of the data they’d created – the way any other creator of raw materials are paid for their work – there would not only be a financial audit trail and greater transparency in a currently opaque, self-governed system, there would also be legal and financial incentives not to deal in things like child trafficking and other illegal activities.  The risks of funding those activities would simply be too great.

Whatever the solution, I urge you to at the very least change the language that’s being used in the public discourse.  People with Facebook accounts are not “customers.”  And it’s not just their identity and email addresses that Facebook sells in exchange for access to their platform.  Facebook’s users are its workforce, its producers, busily producing the data it sells.  We are the producers of data, the massive, uncompensated workforce on the backs of whom Facebook derives historic fortunes. Begin there.  Call them what they are – a company that makes its fortunes by exploiting the efforts, labor, and production of the world’s largest uncompensated workforce.  Show the connection between the massive creation of data by users and the fortunes amassed by these companies and then take a hard look at the financial well-being and personal freedoms of the people who produced all that data.  It would be a good place to start the discussion, and it would be educational in the extreme for those concerned.

Very Respectfully Yours,

Michael Brewer

— 
Michael S. Brewer
Principal Consultant and Problem Solver
Tornberg Consulting, LLC
San Diego, California & Washington, D.C.

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Little User
Little User
10 days ago

Let’s not also make the mistake believing the entire internet needs to be regulated. A platform or app is not the internet. Any regulation needs to be applied specifically not globally. Those crying loudest about regulation just want enough to exclude their competition. This is a notorious time honored ploy.