It was the fall of 2006 when my desk phone rang. It was an assistant registrar at Cornell University, where I worked.
“Tracy,” she said immediately, “what are you going to do about Facebook?”
I laughed out loud and reminded her that Facebook was, at that time, a private company, only available to Ivy League institutions and not in the bailiwick of the director of information technology at Cornell. She pushed right through my protestations. “Educate the students about the appropriate use of it,” was her message
For a week or so I thought about it, and then one rainy November Saturday morning, I sat down and wrote “Thoughts on Facebook.” This essay is still widely cited today (although I regret that Cornell University, which co-owns it with me, has chosen to remove it from its servers). It is, I believe, the first “user guide” to Facebook. It is not academic. I wrote it in one sitting, just thinking through what I knew and could image about a site that invites disclosure. At the forefront of my thoughts was a story that my friend Steve McDonald told us about a student from Ohio State University.
In the days before MySpace, Friendster or Facebook, people self-disclosed on early, rudimentary electronic bulletin boards. One young man, name fully available, took that opportunity to discuss the dimensions and so forth of his phallus. Some time later, he began to apply for jobs and found he was always getting to the penultimate stage of a hiring process but not beyond … until one day an alum from a hiring committee pulled him aside and said it was because of that post. From that tale, I went on to talk about how not just students had access to Facebook -- if Mom and Dad had a cornell.edu address (or any Ivy League institution), they could see the posts. So did the Cornell police, administrators and faculty. Or an insurance adjuster, a bank lender and yes, employers
Fast-forward to The Wall Street Journal’s “Facebook Files” and the aftermath of countless stories of harm attributed in one degree or another to Facebook. Students in my Culture, Law and Politics of the Internet courses in the later 2000s were already cynical about Zuckerberg’s apologies. Cornell students who went to work for Facebook readily reported to me that the security -- and privacy -- of Facebook was a joke. Sheryl Sandberg underscored Mark Zuckerberg’s avarice. Cambridge Analytica malevolence deepened the plot; its magnitude gave notice to the results of the 2016 election. Myanmar genocide against the Rohingya revealed horrific use of the platform, and the list goes on, including acid burns and gang rape in India. Trump, and then Jan. 6.
Today, through the whistle-blower’s revelations, we contend with the grotesque activities of organized crime, deadly dis-/misinformation about vaccines, global indentured servitude and the vulnerability of youth at risk for mental illness, not to mention individual cases of hate crimes acted out in its vast realm of cyberspace. Against this astonishing set of atrocities, Zuckerberg, who no longer apologizes as he refashions himself as an “innovator,” has his company press on with a potential launch of Instagram for Kids. If you haven’t gotten the memo yet that Facebook is relentlessly interested in “profit over people,” as the whistle-blower has said, and does not really care about the human cost in its adolescent-minded pursuit of success, then perhaps it is time to look inward, my friend. You are missing the most obvious story of contemporary robber baron rapaciousness since Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Morgan.
Fifteen years after I wrote “Thoughts on Facebook,” I am once again teaching about the law and policy of the internet. Just last week, coincidentally, our class discussed Section 230 liability. Sign me up for Danielle Citron’s suggested “Reasonable Content Moderation” reform -- in fact, having written policies and processes that work similarly (such as for the DMCA violations and safe harbors), I would be happy to help craft a model law. Also, I would happily put my shoulder to the wheel to assist FTC chair Kahn’s antitrust investigations -- and hopeful breakup -- of the company. And then there are the myriad privacy debacles associated with the Big FB. Senator Gillibrand’s proposed new agency devoted to oversight of consumer digital integrity sounds like a start. I hope that we get past debt limit, infrastructure and reconciliation to begin work.
We have come a long way since the best I could do was to suggest that Cornell students hide the red cups when posting on Facebook. It is time to break Facebook up, subject it (and others) to reasonable content moderation practices and make Facebook accountable. Not just to the United States, but to the world. What many may not know is that Facebook is the conduit to the internet in many developing areas of the world, which is how it plays such an outsize role in international affairs such as internal politics of India or the Rohingya tragedy. We, the United States, bequeathed Facebook from the most elite institutions -- Harvard -- of our society and an envied market-driven society that ogled Facebook’s success. In other words, it is not just a matter of making Facebook accountable. We -- American society, including American higher education -- have some accountability of our own in this matter of what we are going to do about Facebook.