The Nation is a Social Network – Let’s Get Digital
During the six hours when WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram were down on Monday, October 4th, I had no clue what my kids needed to bring to school the following day. Like many Israelis, my connection with public services in Israel is primarily through the products provided by a single company. A company that, according to recent testimony in the US Congress, is willing to trade the well-being of its users for the well-being of its shareholders.
How to sign up for the Green Pass, whether my kids need to be in quarantine because of a sick student, and where to pick up antigen tests were all shared through WhatsApp just earlier that day by my kids’ schools, along with connections with public services and of course friends and family. Never before have so many been dependent on so few. Never before has the body politic been willing to surrender the public square to private management that could block, change, or simply be unable to provide access to the agora at any given time.
The bottom line is that Israel’s reliance on Facebook and its products is a threat to national security, and after Monday’s outage it is hard to ignore it further.
The bottom line is that Israel’s reliance on Facebook and its products is a threat to national security, and after Monday’s outage it is hard to ignore it further. Of course there are alternatives — phone, text messages, email. But given the amount of data we rely on through the distribution lists and channels that are managed and maintained by Facebook these alternate channels are underinvested in and sub-par, unable to fulfill the rich and almost ubiquitous role WhatsApp, especially, plays in our civic and social life.
Yet even when service is smooth, relying on a private actor with private interests to manage the public means of communications and commerce is a bad idea. For years, we have heard of accusations of Facebook’s products and algorithms aiding in active genocide, in organizing armed insurrections, of subverting democratic elections. For years we have ignored the warnings, willing to pay the social price for the extraordinary convenience these products have sold us for the price of our data and our attention. For years, we imagined that the pure motive of the profit interest would keep the company apolitical and a faithful steward of our democratic infrastructure.
Given what we have learned about Facebook’s management’s internal deliberations surrounding US democracy from the documents leaked and testimony given, it is time for us to recognize that the only way to defend the national security of our citizens is to build an alternative digital infrastructure that could fulfill the same place in our lives as today’s profit-driven social networks. Knowing what we know now about the threat Facebook poses to our national security we need to take the initiative and leverage the tools available to the public sector to catalyze an alternative.
Knowing what we know now about the threat Facebook poses to our national security we need to take the initiative and leverage the tools available to the public sector to catalyze an alternative. Fortunately, we have Web3.
Fortunately, this wake up call came at an opportune moment. The Web3 movement has developed increasingly sophisticated tools to enable distributed, decentralized social networks that avoid the challenges of lock-in, centralization of power, and personal data exploitation that define Web 2.0 social networks.
Also fortunately, the State of Israel has some of the world’s leading software developers and cryptographers, driving the security and privacy revolution. Israelis are involved across the myriad efforts necessary for the state to recruit them to help build the world’s first global, open-source, publicly owned and publicly driven social network. One that abides by the standards of adversarial interoperability and invites other networks to connect with them just like Gmail users can interact with AOL users (yes, they still are out there). One that stands independently from any state apparatus, whose infrastructure is auditable and transparent.
Building a community owned and managed social networking platform is not a new idea. Technology pioneers such as Jaron Lanier has been advocating on behalf of the idea for years, after observing that investor-bound digital companies are built around business models where the people are the product (or as the saying goes, “if it is free, you are the product”). The inventor of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee sought to build an alternative when he realized that the “internet went wrong” because of these perverse incentives, but so far failed to take off because of the lack of public buy-in.
In his excellent book “Ministry of the Future,” Kim Stanley Robinson imagines such a network called YourLock built by an international NGO and made available to the wider public, where each user owns their own data, is able to profit from sharing it on their own terms, one where the power is held by the users of the network. Robinson points out that having such a network is critical to enable the collective action we will need in coming years to address challenges arising from climate collapse, with actions that may run in contraction to the economic interests of private corporations managing these networks.
Some will say that only the private sector can build disruptive innovation. Unfortunately, what we are learning from the Facebook testimonies is that the incentives associated with building venture-backed digital companies are often at odds with the responsibilities of nurturing and enabling democracy. Some will say that the public sector is not good at building products people love to use. Yet those same people entrust their lives to the public sector. As a species we agreed long ago that it is in the best interest of all to come together and appoint representatives to oversee the creation of roads, the laying of cable for telecommunication and energy, and the installation of water infrastructure. Social networks are just as elemental to everyday life as good roads, and should invest and regulate accordingly.
Building a Web3 social network that puts the citizen first will cost a fraction of laying fiber, and give us defensible infrastructure to enable our free and unfettered digital lives.
Building a Web3 social network that puts the citizen first will cost a fraction of laying fiber, and give us defensible infrastructure to enable our free and unfettered digital lives. Building a transparent and open infrastructure will unleash the creativity of all of us while ensuring that the same oversight and critique we reserve for our representatives can be levied on the builders and maintainers of the network.
If anyone can catalyze secure, civically minded future of social networking — the future of public communication and commerce — it should be a public trust working to ensure freedom of communication and commerce. One that does not have to show quarterly profits from increasingly invasive advertising and data mining. One that puts the citizen’s private wellbeing at the top of its quarterly returns.
The State of Israel has the talent, it has the vibrant democracy, and the Web3 moment has given us a whole new set of tools to be able to do so in a distributed, peer-to-peer, more democratic way. We have the opportunity to use our in-country social network as the basis for freeing the citizens of other democratic countries from their reliance on a single exploitative private player. All it takes is the political will and the budget we would spend on a few tanks – with far more immediate impact on our national security. Let’s turn the crisis into an opportunity and take the forefront of a new citizen first platform for social communication and engagement.