When David Cameron became Britain's Prime Minister, he made an appointment to talk to another head of state: Mark Zuckerberg. Yes, the billionaire wunderkind, the founder of Facebook.
At the meeting at 10 Downing Street, Cameron and Zuckerberg discussed ways in which social networks could take over certain governmental duties and inform public policy-making.
A month later, the two had a follow-up conversation, during which Zuckerberg outlined how Facebook could be used as a platform to decrease spending and increase public participation in the political process: “I mean all these people have great ideas and a lot of energy that they want to bring and I think for a lot of people it's just about having an easy and a cheap way for them to communicate their ideas.”
“Brilliant,” Cameron said.
Within a year, Zuckerberg had a seat at the table with government leaders. In May, 2011, he attended the G8 summit, the annual meeting of key heads of state. The media reported that world leaders from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President Nicolas Sarkozy were more in awe of Zuckerberg than he was of them.
Is it odd to think of Mark Zuckerberg as a head of state? Perhaps. But Facebook has the power and reach of a nation.
With more than 800 million members, Facebook's population would make it the third-largest nation in the world. It has citizens, an economy, its own currency, systems for resolving disputes and relations with other nations and institutions.
It's easy to understand why people flock to Facebook and other social networks: They have become ubiquitous, necessary, and addictive. But when you join up, you don't know enough about the ramifications of social network citizenship to understand where that decision will lead and how it might transform you and your life.
The governing rules of Facebook – its terms of service – shift rapidly and without warning. One day, it promises you that your friends are private; the next day, it makes them public.
When Facebook suddenly changed its policy in 2009 so that lists of friends and affiliations were made public and no longer subject to people's privacy controls, the repercussions were felt around the world.
In Iran, authorities questioned or detained the Facebook “friends” of Tehran's U.S.-based critics. People were beaten. Americans travelling to Iran were detained and had their passports confiscated just for having a Facebook page.
Unlike in a democracy, Facebook is unilaterally redefining the social contract – making the private now public and making the public now private. Private information about people is readily available to third parties.
At the same time, public institutions, such as the police, use social networks to privately undertake activities that previously would have been subject to public oversight. Even though cops can't enter a home without a warrant, they scrutinize Facebook photos of parties held at high-school students' homes.
A 2008 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services memo even recommended friending citizenship petitioners to monitor the validity of their relationships, searching for evidence, for example, that a marriage doesn't meet the department's legitimacy standards.
The IRS searches Facebook and MySpace profiles for evidence of taxable transactions and the whereabouts of tax evaders. Courts consider social network posts about a parent's partying to be signs of parental neglect. Although such institutional uses may be touted as furthering law enforcement, they conflict with traditional due process rights and the principle that citizens should be free from constant scrutiny.
Both inadvertently and through conscious decisions, Facebook and other social networks have put private information, including medical test results, credit-card numbers and sensitive photos into the wrong hands.
The United States Constitution was penned by philosopher-politicians gravely concerned with the question of what was necessary for individual and social flourishing. They understood the necessity of adopting principles to deal with everything from resolving disputes to encouraging innovation, from structuring relationships with other nations to protecting individual rights.
Instead of philosophy, computer engineering and data collection are the driving forces behind the policies of Facebook Nation. The quest for more and more information about more and more people is what stimulates the Facebook economy because the service makes its money on data.
It's time to figure out what principles should govern this new nation. Every democratic country has governing principles about what rights its citizens have over property, privacy, life, and liberty. The citizens of Facebook Nation deserve no less.
Adapted from I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and The Death of Privacy, published in January by Free Press. © 2012 by Lori Andrews.