Globalising the mainstream

Facebook as the next (totalitarian) world government

Now imagine that in a near future, Facebook (or something like Facebook) becomes a major player in financial transactions. They already offer “Facebook credits” for some games. Although I’m sure that the “Facebook credit” is much less transacted than the Linden dollar, imagine, for a moment, that it becomes a common currency among the 500 million Facebook users. It is thus conceivable that banks start connecting to Facebook’s “financial servers” and allow their clients to freely exchange “Facebook dollars” among bank accounts; and that online shops start accepting “Facebook dollars” as currency; and soon governments might start accepting tax payments and processing refunds via Facebook at well. It might not even take much time until that happens. But at this point, governments completely lost control of the whole situation. They cannot legislate what Facebook does or doesn’t; except for US citizens, who might be able to sue Facebook, the rest of the world has no protection against Zuckerberg’s whims — and we know he’s hardly the most honest and trustable CEO of the planet. Just imagine what happens if your taxes are due to be paid next week, but Facebook cancels your account because it doesn’t like the picture on your profile (because it shows a cute kitty instead of your real face). Now you’re unable to pay taxes, and also unable to complain — because Facebook will just shrug and point at their ToS, which allows them to cancel accounts at their whim without needing a “cause” to do so; they are, after all, a private company, and allowed to engage in any kind of agreement with their clients. You’re free to go if you dislike their policies; but if tax payments become semi-mandatory via Facebook, you might get kicked out of the system — and since Facebook tracks your IP address and location, they might prevent you from creating a new account — and not be able to deal with your country’s revenue system any longer, and be fined (or, in some cases, even go to jail). And there is nothing you can do about it. You won’t even be able to complain about it on Facebook because your account has been cancelled!

This is, for me, the problem of private quasi-monopolies without direct competition, without public scrutiny, and too much power: at some point, it becomes impossible to prevent abuse, and we just have to go with it. In my country, for instance, it’s impossible for someone to set up a second financial network, just because all the banks are on Multibanco, and the costs of starting a new competing service are staggering — and not worth the expense anyway, since the banks won’t be joining it. Why should they? They are already co-owners of the existing service, and protective of it. The only advantage for the citizens is that the system is very strongly legislated and controlled, because Government has power over it. On multinational, global organisations, this is simply not the case. Even if the US started to worry about Facebook’s perceived power, all that Zuckerberg had to do is to relocate his HQ to some other country, or, like PayPal, establish lots of separate companies all over the world (which globally use the same brand) to avoid any restrictions. PayPal is able to terminate accounts and seize money at will because they are not under a single jurisdiction; some jurisdictions might actually forbid that without a court order, but PayPal neatly evades the issue by simply forwarding the money to whatever jurisdiction is more appropriate and seize it there. You cannot complain to a single entity — either in your country or elsewhere — because the money is not in any “real” (physical) place any longer. It flows across servers in the world, jumping around jurisdictions, and eludes any attempt of being tracked.

Now I’m not paranoid, neither do I like too-strong, too-controlling governments either. I’m not even paranoid enough not to trust governments. So long as I know where I can complain to, or where I can exercise my freedom of speech, I’m happy — I cannot demand much more. With Facebook, if my account gets terminated, or my comments are cancelled, I have no recourse, and no place to complain to: in effect, I have no rights, no privacy, and no way to protest about the lack of them.

This is what worries me about the tendency of pushing everything into the mainstream and letting a handful of global corporations set the rules, over and above any governments, and without any interest in the rights of individual citizens. It sounds like a scenario from a cyberpunk novel, and perhaps what surprises me is that how quickly we have come to this point…

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