If Facebook Becomes The Internet's Authentication System, Can Citizen Scores Around The World Be Far Behind?
from the network-effects dept
One of the reasons the digital world is so exciting -- and so attractive to startups and investors -- is that network effects help companies to grow quickly, until they end up with what amounts to a monopoly in a sector. A particularly powerful monopoly that is exercising people at the moment is Facebook, and for multiple reasons. Its huge user base is making it so attractive to advertisers that traditional publishers are badly impacted. Another issue is that its reach is so great that it is hard to stop so-called "fake news" from being shared rapidly and widely across the social network, with potentially serious real-world effects.
But there's a third aspect, so far little remarked upon, that is brought out well in a post by Jason Ditzian on The Bold Italic site. For the last decade, he's been a keen user of City CarShare, a nonprofit car-sharing service with vehicle stations around the Bay Area. Here's what happened:
City CarShare was recently bought by a corporation, Getaround. And Getaround built its platform on top of Facebook. So when I went to migrate my account over to them, I found that there's literally no way to do it as a non-Facebook user. If I want to share cars with my fellow city dwellers, I’m compelled to strike a Faustian bargain.
To access the services of Getaround, one must authenticate their identity through Facebook.
Ditzian writes that the Getaround site is so tightly integrated with Facebook that it claims there's no way to provide alternative authentication systems. As more companies choose to do the same, using Facebook as the foundation of their services, they too will inevitably require users to possess a Facebook account. That, in its turn, will make Facebook's authentication system even more powerful, driving even more companies to use it -- and even more people to sign up to Facebook just so they can use these services.
Leaving aside the serious issue of Facebook extending its online monopoly to become the Internet's de facto authentication system, there's another concern. As more and more services build on top of Facebook, Facebook's terms and conditions may require access to some or even all of the extra information they can provide about their users' activities and interests. That would enable the social network to fine-tune the deal it offers to advertisers, something it is naturally keen to do so that it can boost its rates to drive sales and profits. As Ditzian writes:
If we give in to the sheer gigantic sweep of Facebook and the convenience it creates, and feed all our collective information into its ever-more-intelligent algorithms; if news is read and messages are sent primarily within the Facebook network so that each of these interactions sows new data points in our profiles; and if we build up thousands upon thousands of these innocuous-seeming interactions over years and years, and those interactions are overlaid with face-recognized images, marketing data from online purchases, browsing histories and, now, GPS-tracked driving data, is this total bartering of privacy worth the buy-in to Zuckerberg's "supportive," "safe," "informed," "civically engaged," global community?
The greatest threat here may not be from Facebook itself, which, after all, is a business that wants to make as much money as possible, rather than a Machiavellian scheme to enslave mankind. But there are other powerful actors -- national governments -- that would love to have access to that rich store of information in order to use it not for profit but for the purposes of political and social control. As Techdirt has reported, China is already creating its own "citizen score" system that will draw heavily on information provided by social networks. The US, too, is starting to carry out "mandatory social media checks" as part of increased scrutiny of visa applications from some areas in the world. A single sign-on for key services makes gathering that information much easier.
The more Facebook becomes the point of control for using the Internet, the more governments will be inclined to require its "cooperation," in the form of providing access to its data, as a condition of allowing it to become the Internet's authentication service in their territory. Paradoxically, the more useful that Facebook becomes, the more vulnerable it will be to the threat of exclusion from a country. That may not be to Facebook's liking, but it's another consequence of the network effects that have made it so successful.