Should Facebook Have A Seat At The Geopolitical Table?
Before the internet there was no such thing as virtual space—our world was defined by physical boundaries made up of sovereign nation-states. But today, we have communities that exist entirely online.
One of these communities—Facebook—just topped 2 billion users. If Facebook were a country, its population would outstrip even China by almost 40 percent. And companies like Facebook, Google, and YouTube aren’t just big—they’re powerful. They have an impact on elections of sovereign states, combat censorship, or silence terrorist groups online.
[Need a break from this world?]
So, how should traditional nation-states confront the rise of boundary-less “net states”? Alexis Wichowski, adjunct assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Max Read, editor of New York Magazine’s technology blog “Select All,” join Ira to discuss the implications of giving tech giants a seat at the geopolitical table.
On the term “net states”:
Alexis Wichowski: One of the reasons for coming up with this term was that we didn’t have good language to talk about what entities like Facebook, Google, Anonymous, and WikiLeaks are. So, I would say that what net states are are they’re online entities that have large international followings or membership who have some sort of political or belief-driven agenda.
On how tech companies don’t seem to understand their global influence:
Max Read: It seems as though Facebook has grown a little bit too quickly and a little bit too big for Mark Zuckerberg and other executives to quite understand what they’ve got going on there.
On a “United Nations” for net states:
Alexis Wichowski: There’s 193 countries represented in the United Nations, but it doesn’t mean that they actually exert a ton of control over them. So even if there were some sort of confederacy of net states, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be a governing body or able to make the companies change any of their behaviors in a practical way.
[Meet the researcher who hunts—and studies—killer cone snails.]
On Facebook mixing a town square model with capitalism:
Max Read: Should a business whose entire business model is based on selling advertising be the town square? It’s a little bit like ceding all the functions of a town square to a mall. And you wouldn’t want to have public debates in a mall, necessarily. And I love malls. I think malls are great. But there should be a real public space that doesn’t have that kind of commercial aspect to it for people to communicate.
On what net states do better than governments:
Alexis Wichowski: The U.S. government was very slow initially in responding to Puerto Rico after the hurricanes. And we saw Google deploy one of its projects called Project Loon, these higher altitude balloons that provide internet service and cell phone service to try to step in. And Tesla stepped up to try to provide power and electricity. So we were seeing the tech companies, the net states, rally in a way that government wasn’t.
On the difficulty of disrupting net states:
Max Read: The big four—Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple—have so much wealth. They’ve reached a scale that’s almost impossible to topple. Disruption is always possible. But we’re not in a moment right now where there’s a new technology emerging the way the internet was, say, in the early 2000s, that a small underfunded company could take advantage of and use it to topple giants. I think if we’re worried about the power of these big companies, there needs to be a public response, not just a consumer response.
Alexis Wichowski is author of The Information Trade: How Big Tech Conquers Countries, Challenges Our Rights, and Transforms Our World (HarperCollins, 2020). She’s also Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Innovation for the City of New York and an adjunct associate professor at Columbia University in New York, New York.
Max Read is an editor for the Select All blog of New York Magazine. He’s based in New York, New York.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. I’d like to try a little thought experiment with you all. And that is, what if Facebook was a country? I’m not talking about some sort of physical territory like the US of Facebook. It would still exist entirely online.
But if Facebook were a country, its two billion users would outstrip even China by almost 40%. And it would be powerful enough to say, oh, I don’t know, impact elections in sovereign states, do you think?
Before the internet, our world was defined by physical boundaries made up of nation states. But now, we also have internet titans like Facebook and Google and Twitter and YouTube. You could probably throw Apple in there, too. And they wield enough power to influence global politics.
So how should traditional nation states confront the rise of these boundaryless boundaryless net states? Nations know how to sanction countries when they do us wrong. How do we sanction a net state? Joining me for this thought experiment are my guests, Alexis Wichowski, teaches media, government, and technology at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, and Max Read, editor of Select/All, New York Magazine’s technology web site.
Do you think net states like Facebook should be given a seat at the geopolitical table? Give us a call. Our number, 844-724-8255. Alexis and Max, welcome to Science Friday.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Thanks.
MAX READ: Thanks for having us.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Thanks for having us.
IRA FLATOW: Let me begin with you, Alexis. We have this geopolitical term for countries. We call them nation states.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Mm-hmm.
IRA FLATOW: And you use the term net states to describe these powerful companies like Facebook and Google. Flesh out a little bit more what your idea of a net state is.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: So one of the reasons for coming up with this term was that we didn’t have good language to talk about what entities like Facebook and Google, and even technology collectives like Anonymous and WikiLeaks, what they are. A long time ago, maybe 20 years ago, the word non-state actor was a pretty neutral term. The Oxford Dictionary of Social Science used NATO and the United Nations as examples of non-state actors back then.
But since that has become a term associated with terrorists, we need a new language, I think, to discuss what these entities are and have better conversations about them, to understand what they mean in our current landscape. So I would say that what net states are are they’re online entities that have large international followings or devotees or membership who have some sort of political or belief-driven agenda.
And I think there’s a huge variety of net states out there. And it’s not to say that they are good or bad. It’s just to observe the phenomenon of what we are seeing right now.
IRA FLATOW: Max. You agree?
MAX READ: Yeah, I mean, one of the things that we’ve noticed is we’ve been talking about in the news over the last few months is we’re talking about Facebook’s role, not just in the US election but in the German election and in elections around the world, is that we all are aware that Facebook has this kind of immense power but we haven’t really thought through how that power relates to governments or to citizens. And it helps to have terminology to talk about it.
IRA FLATOW: But it’s also interesting that they haven’t seem– the people who founded Facebook and Twitter, they haven’t thought that through, either.
MAX READ: No. It seems as though Facebook has grown a little bit too quickly and a little bit too big for Mark Zuckerberg and other executives to quite understand what they’ve got going on there.
IRA FLATOW: I’m going to quote today in Washington Post, an article online from Sean Parker, one of the Facebook founders, who said– I’m going to go through the article here– he says, “I don’t know if I really understood the consequences of what I was saying because the unintended consequences of a network when it grows into a billion or two billion people and it literally changes your relationship with society.”
MAX READ: Yeah.
IRA FLATOW: Right?
MAX READ: Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: We haven’t thought that through. So how do you then deal with the net state? I mentioned sanctions before. If we talk about putting tariffs and things on countries that we want to sanction, can you do that with a net state?
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Well, you can regulate them. I mean, one of the things about the internet that’s kind of astounding is that, for the most part, it’s still unregulated, except in places like China. And so that’s one possible way of governments, traditional nation states exerting influence over what net states can do. But it’s not clear that it’s going to happen. And it’s not clear, even, if that’s possible at this point because of their size and their reach internationally.
IRA FLATOW: Not only– go ahead, Max.
MAX READ: I mean, I think one thing that’s important to keep in mind when we talk about net states, just as Alexis says, that as big and huge as they are, and as border crossing as they are, they still operate under the rule of law, theoretically. They are American companies and corporations that are subject to American laws and regulations. And there’s a big right now a sort of building antitrust movement, in fact aimed at using antitrust law and government power not just to regulate, but to check that power and to maybe even break up the companies in some cases.
IRA FLATOW: But–
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: But I was going to say, one of the things that I think complicates matters is I think the companies, the net states have anticipated these kinds of potential actions. And Google, for instance, has data barges in international waters. There’s not– even though they may be physically located, based in the United States, they have data centers all over the world. So that makes it much more complicated in terms of enforcing regulations against them.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. They also have stockholders.
Right? And they’re beholden to their stockholders to maximize their profits and do what it takes to keep the company healthy.
MAX READ: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, that’s a problem. And that’s a problem for Facebook, which has– its day-to-day mission when we use it is to connect people with one another, to save photographs, to help each other. But, you know, its obligations as a corporation are to maximize profit. And to do so, it needs to create a space that sells advertising at this kind of unbelievable scale. And in my opinion, that turns it into a service that’s incredibly easy to manipulate and misuse.
IRA FLATOW: So should we– if we go back to our geopolitical model, we have the United Nations. Should there be some sort of nation state United Nations or something to deal with it?
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Well, it’s really–
IRA FLATOW: Is that possible?
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: It’s a really interesting question. And even if you think– so, I worked at the United Nations for several years with the State Department. And there’s 193 countries represented there, but it doesn’t mean that the United Nations actually exerts a ton of control over them.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: And so even if there were some sort of confederacy of net states, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be a governing body or able to make the companies change any of their behaviors in a practical way.
IRA FLATOW: Let’s go to the phones. 844-724-8255. Let’s go to– is it Sherry in Davenport?
IRA FLATOW: Cherie in Davenport, Iowa. Sorry, Cherie. Go ahead.
CHERIE: Yeah, no worries. Yeah, I just wanted to comment on the fact that I think that there should be some kind of– I know it’s like you’ve kind of touched on it– international law protecting the individuals of each country from intervention by these companies.
I mean, what really concerns me, and has been a problem and a concern for many people across the world, is the influence that these companies have on governmental proceedings but then they aren’t held to, say, you know, according to constitutional law, the government is held to a standard that protects the individual’s right.
But that doesn’t necessarily translate right now for these companies that are able to internationally influence governments. You know what I mean? And so I just feel like there needs to be more stringent regulation collectively across the globe to ensure that individuals’ rights in every part of the world are being protected since these groups or corporations are able to influence their government. That’s pretty much what I wanted to say.
IRA FLATOW: All right. Thanks for your call. Alexis?
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yeah. I have one thought about this. It reminded me of how in the European Union, there is an attempt to make sure that Google has the so-called right to be forgotten laws that Google, if asked, will take down information about a person to protect individuals’ rights to have some control over their data.
But one of the challenges is even if you have a country in the European Union who can take out their data on Google, what about all of the other countries where that data exists? So its very difficult to enforce in a practical sense, even if countries are making the attempt to protect individuals in this way.
IRA FLATOW: So this isn’t really– you know, we’re trying to compare these to corporations but we’ve talked about this in the early age when we didn’t have the online stuff. They were just companies. And phrases like what’s good for General Motors is good for the USA, that corporations were able to sort of call a lot of the shots because of their size. Well, what’s different now? We just have different corporations. Why is that different?
MAX READ: Well one big reason it’s different is that company like General Motors was helpful in creating a huge middle class in Michigan and, in fact, across the whole country. And right now, tech companies, Facebook in particular, Google to a somewhat lesser extent, and Amazon to an even lesser extent, just aren’t providing those kinds of jobs in the same scale that the industrial giants of the early 20th century were. So it’s not just that they are wielding this immense influence. They’re wielding that influence both as profit engines but also as profit engines that are generating money just for a much smaller class of people.
You know, there’s plenty of reasons to object to the idea that just because a company provides jobs it deserves a say. But I think that there’s even less of a case for a company like Facebook deserving to throw its weight around the way it does if it’s not even building wealth for regular people in the US.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Well, there’s more to contributions to society than building wealth, though, because one of the things that these companies have done, which makes them different than traditional companies, is provide a kind of public fora. They’re sort of the modern town squares whether we like it or not. And it’s, I think, providing people a space to communicate and to connect– it does provide some sort of public service, even though it’s not something we measure economically.
MAX READ: Yeah, and that’s absolutely true. And I think that it’s something that Facebook is slowly realizing about itself, that it has a public service component to it that it maybe hasn’t taken the full responsibility for in the past. Again, you know, for me, what I keep coming back to is this sense, should a business whose entire business model is based on selling advertising be the town square?
It’s a little bit like ceding all the functions of a town square to a mall. And you wouldn’t to have public debates in a mall necessarily. And I love malls. I think malls are great. But there should be still a real public space that doesn’t have that kind of commercial aspect to it for people to communicate.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because you see people now who are upset with the politicizing, I mean, the political discussion on Facebook, saying, I need another platform.
I need something else.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yep.
IRA FLATOW: Right?
MAX READ: Yeah. Absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: Who ever thought Myspace would go anywhere? Right? And we sort of think that these things are so big that they can’t dissolve. But history shows they can be dissolved.
MAX READ: I mean, one thing I’ve moved a lot, personally, from Facebook to Instagram over the last few years because Instagram’s a much more pleasant place for me. There’s a lot less political discussion, a lot more nice photographs and videos. But Instagram’s owned by Facebook.
Some of these companies are so big and so good at buying up potential future competitors and we have a government like an antitrust administration that’s just not very interested in checking that power. It means that Facebook is buying up WhatsApp and Instagram and sort of building a big moat outside of itself in a way that I’m not sure we’ve really seen before and certainly that Myspace didn’t have before it was toppled by Facebook.
IRA FLATOW: Are net states doing things better now? Let’s go to the other side of the coin, better than what nation states are doing.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Well, one of the examples that I was just reading about recently was what’s happening in the relief efforts in Puerto Rico. The US government has been very slow or was very slow initially in responding to Puerto Rico after the hurricanes. And we saw Google deploy one of its projects called Project Loon, these higher altitude balloons that provide internet service and cell phone service to try to step in. And Tesla stepped up to try to provide power and electricity.
So we were seeing the tech companies, the net states rally in a way that government wasn’t, or in different ways. There weren’t people on the ground, but they were still trying to provide services that traditionally would have been in the responsibility of government, to rebuild the infrastructure.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. We’re talking about net states this hour on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking with Alexis Wichowski and Max Read. An interesting tweet came in, because we all know that everything in science has a history in science fiction. “The corporations as nation states,” David Best writes, “that you’re talking about right now is literally straight out of cyberpunk writing.”
MAX READ: Yeah, absolutely.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Max want to talk about that?
MAX READ: Yeah, well, I mean, I say, as a big William Gibson fan, as somebody who’s read Neuromancer more times than I’d like to admit, a lot of my interest in this comes from a recognition of the sort of dystopia that you first saw rise in the ’80s in fiction is coming to pass in ways that I’m not quite sure we anticipated quite so much. If you’re a science fiction fan or a wannabe science fiction writer, as I am, then journalism is a great field to be in right now.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Yeah, absolutely. And there’s one book in particular, The Circle by David Eggers that really touches very nicely. It’s not as historical. It doesn’t go back to the ’80s. I think this is just a few years ago that it was published. But talking about sort of the rise of the net states and what it would do to modern society.
IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, thinking about science fiction, what fascinates me now as being someone in the inside, as we all are, and also someone who covers a lot of science and experimentation is that we really are all a part of a giant experiment.
MAX READ: Yeah. Yeah, and we all live–
IRA FLATOW: And it’s frightening. Doesn’t it frighten you–
MAX READ: I mean, more than a little bit
IRA FLATOW: –that we don’t know where this is headed?
MAX READ: And, you know, I just wrote a very long article about Facebook. I spend a lot of time freaking myself out and psyching myself out about the amount of information it has on me, about the kind of tests it can run on me without me knowing. And I still couldn’t bring myself to quit at the end of it. I’m still there.
IRA FLATOW: So you’re not seeing people who– you said, you know, you’re having second thoughts. I know people who are now getting off of Facebook. They’re trying to not tweet as much as they– or follow Twitter as much.
MAX READ: I mean, I see that a little bit.
IRA FLATOW: A little backlash, a little bit?
MAX READ: I mean, but at the scale we’re talking about, even a few 100,000 people doesn’t make much of a difference.
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: And I don’t know about you, but what I see is when I see my friends take temporary breaks from Facebook, it’s that it’s temporary. It’s they go off for about a month or two and then they come back on because they’ve missed it. They’ve missed that sense of connection.
IRA FLATOW: So is it ripe then for another disruptor to come in and create something different, maybe a little more friendly, or are we all just– I mean, you know, everything goes down to the lowest common denominator when you have giant populations.
MAX READ: I mean, my feeling as a pessimist is that the big companies that we’re talking about, let’s just say Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple being the big four that they’ve created– they have so much wealth. They have so much. They have so much. They’ve reached a scale that’s almost impossible to sort of topple.
And you see companies like Facebook not just buying up potential future competitors like Instagram, but in the case of another potential future competitor like Snapchat, which refused to sell, outright stealing features of that app and installing it in their own apps. And you know, Snapchat just released some really bad earnings. Its stock is tanking, in part because of that exact dynamic.
You know, disruption is always possible. I’d be stupid not to think that maybe something is going to come from the outside. But we’re not in a moment right now where there’s a new technology emerging the way the internet was, say, in the early 2000s, that a small underfunded company could take advantage of and use it to topple giants. I think if we’re worried about the power of these big companies, we need to have– there needs to be a public response, not just a consumer response.
IRA FLATOW: I’m looking toward the– my own personal view is looking toward the entertainment industry. People doing these games online and playing. Something out of there, I think, is going to come. Who knows? Thank you very much.
Alexis Wichowski teaches on media, government, and technology at Columbia University’s School of International Public Relations. And Max Reed, editor of Select/All, New York Magazine’s technology web site. Thank you–
ALEXIS WICHOWSKI: Thank you.
MAX READ: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: –for taking the time to be with us today. BJ Leiderman composed our theme music. And if you missed part of the program or you want to hear it again, we had a lot to talk about today. Go to our web site. Subscribe to our podcast, or anywhere you get your podcasts, you can hear us. And of course, you can ask Alexa, Amazon Echo, or Google Home. And I won’t say the words that turn it on because we get people angry when that happens.
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