Tech giants, and social media ones in particular, are, well, giant. But they’re also dense, and certain problems tend to arise when a very large number of people occupy the same space.
Sites like Facebook rely on the so-called network effect, the concept that a service exponentially improves, becoming more useful, attractive, or cheap, the more people join it. “As the site grows and its network gets bigger, it will also get more annoying and less useful,” Rebecca Greenfield theorized at the Wire way back in 2012. “Facebook’s network effect isn’t exponential, it’s more of a curve, that will, at some point, start its downhill trajectory.”
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It’s quite a bit worse than that, as the intervening years have made obvious, and trust in Facebook, from the public and its own workers, has plummeted and lawmakers seem intent on shaking up Zuckerberg’s empire.
In part, the difficulty in legislating something like Facebook is the difficulty in defining exactly what it is. It publishes information but eludes the definition of a publisher, claims to be a technology company but acts more like an advertising firm, exists as a sort of digital town square but is not subject to the rules of a common carrier. And it’s exceedingly difficult to draw comparisons to extant businesses since Facebook does not physically exist anywhere in particular or tangibly make anything (unless you count its uninspiring voice assistant speaker, Portal.) It is all of these things, and none of them. Facebook, I will admit now, has no direct analog—and to a point, this is true of most big tech companies. Facebook merely presents an enticing exemplar of some of the industry’s worst practices.
Knowing what it isn’t, let’s plainly define what Facebook is: an entity which extracts monetizable data in exchange for a place to store and grow our digital lives. At its most basic, the relationship resembles that of a tenant to a landlord. So what kind of accommodation does our personal information afford? More populous than any single country, and six of the seven continents, the 2.4 billion people crammed within Facebook’s blue and grey walls are spending their data to rent a digital equivalent of a tenement, constructed to maximize profit at the expense of safety and quality of life.
Antitrust legislation, which has been discussed loftily by progressive Democrats, might save other businesses from Facebook. But the appropriate paradigm for user safety—on Facebook and the rest of the internet—is public health, the same sorts of initiatives that dismantled the exploitive tenement housing systems of the previous Gilded Age.
The problems which cropped up across New York as it began rapidly industrializing and growing in population during the 1830s were inarguably more visceral than the internet boom of the 2000s, though the regulatory environments that gave rise to both were similarly wanting. With little to no laws governing the best practices for construction, immigrant families were crowded into inhumane conditions, often in the form of lightless, windowless interior rooms with limited or no access to water at a time when contagious diseases like cholera and smallpox were epidemic. Largely built from wood, tenements were made more flammable by poor sanitation. City workers who had been dispatched to whitewash the cellars of some of these buildings instead found over 3,900 barrels worth of trash, including “a large number” of dead animals. When these multi-story shacks did inevitably go up in flames, tenants might find that the stairs—also wooden, oftentimes—had burned away, or that an access door to the roof had been locked by the landlord, as in the case of 105 Allen Street blaze that killed 20.
Early attempts at legislation were sporadic and lacking, despite the known danger of tenement fires. “There’s sort of an amendment to the building code [in 1862] that, one thing it does is create the Department of Buildings. But it also begins to require essentially what we would call fire escapes,” Dave Favaloro, Director of Curatorial affairs at New York’s Tenement Museum, told Gizmodo. “You basically had to have some kind of means of egress on the exterior of the building in the case of a fire, but that could be, like, wood ladders, which probably not the best, safest way to get out.” Fire escapes were already mandated for new construction at that time; it took nearly two years for the city to require these fixtures installed on existing residential structures.
The internet too, has undergone a population boom within the past 30 years, surging from an estimated 20-percent globally in 1997 to over 50-percent as of last year. In the US that number is closer to 90-percent. Yet the legal landscape is sparse. No federal legislation defines how most data is collected and stored, or how breaches are reported. Aside from market pressure, nothing prevents sites from using dark patterns to trick users, or rendering pages difficult to read and slow to load by cluttering them with ads and trackers. Accessibility laws, specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) may not strictly apply to online spaces, either. Nor do federal laws define what companies can or can’t do with the data of someone who chooses to leave a specific service.
The landlords of these digital fiefdoms are, more often than not, free to make their own rules, and enforce them as capriciously as suits them. There’s no shortage of historical examples where allowing private industry to run roughshod over the people they’re supposedly serving creates a lot of wealth for some, and an even larger share of human misery for the rest. Although a data breach isn’t likely to result in loss of life the way waking up in a burning building might, the two aren’t entirely dissimilar in terms of the lasting financial damage they can cause.
Worryingly, the scale of these breaches is getting worse as internet adoption and reliance grow. In the early 2000s, breaches that managed to make headlines, like ChoicePoint and Hotels.com, left hundreds of thousands exposed. A decade of industry consolidation later, the Capital One and Equifax breaches leaked data on over 100 million customers each; Twitter stored about 330 million passwords in plaintext by accident; Facebook itself managed to leave the information of over half a billion users on an unsecured server bucket for anyone to see, about the same amount of consumers affected by a hack of Marriott’s reservation system; theft of Yahoo data, which the company did not report for over three years, hit over 1 billion people.
Had laws around fire-proof construction or maximum occupancy meaningfully existed and been enforced in the late 1800s, the tenement as a habitat still posed a public health threat on account of its mercenary architectural practices. On a standard Manhattan lot, tenements often occupied 90 or more percent of that space via building types like the so-called “double-decker,” giving rise to the stale air, dark conditions, and overcrowding. The same Commission discovered over 2,000 people living on one block of these sorts of homes, on which they also failed to find a single bathtub. “The double-decker can not be well ventilated; it can not be well lighted; it is not safe in case of fire. It is built on a lot 25 feet wide by 100 or less in depth, with apartments for four families in each story. This necessitates the occupation of from 86 to 90 percent of the lot’s depth,” the Commission flatly described in its 1895 report. It might have been heartening to hear legislators reckoning with the horrid conditions of hundreds of thousands of city-dwellers, had that 1862 act not more succinctly understood the purpose and dangers of the tenement house 33 years prior (emphasis ours):
“The tenement-house system—that plan by which the greatest amount of profit is sought to be realized from the least possible amount of space, with little or no regard for the health, comfort, or protection of the lives of the tenants—is one requiring the most stringent laws, and their vigorous enforcement.”
Leveraging the same exponential power of network effects that make cities desirable and efficient, the density of population in these unsanitary buildings at a time when vaccines had not yet been developed for diseases like typhoid, cholera, and tuberculosis turned outbreaks into contagions. A wave of cholera could kill thousands, and often hit poor neighborhoods hardest. At least some of the blame for the scale of these epidemics lands squarely on profiteering shoulders of tenement owners.
In the same vein, the network effects that attracted our friends, friends’ friends, and barely-memorable tertiary acquaintances and packs them into close proximity behind the walled gardens of sites like Facebook and also generates its own negative externalities. The airless, lightless confines of these networks has a worrying tendency to amplify the most extreme content that takes root, namely that of racists, xenophobes, and conspiracists (which, ironically, includes anti-vaxxers.) There is no bigger audience, no soapbox that gets a better bang for the buck, whether you’re Coca Cola or ISIS. This isn’t the anecdotal rambling of paranoid users guessing the workings of the black box their trapped in: Facebook’s own internal research has found extreme content finds greater engagement.
Critics will often claim the internet doesn’t deserve this sort of blame, that it’s only a mirror reflecting humanity, warts and all. This line of thinking is like suggesting the symptoms of bubonic plague are merely a facet of bodily function—technically correct, but completely besides the point.
The tenement model doesn’t quite do justice to the scale of how bad information pollution has become, however. Besides amplifying extreme views by optimizing these platforms for engagement (and by extension, advertising revenue), social networks have attracted disinformation campaigns—which now spreads with such efficiency that Americans consider them a worse problem than terrorism, violent crime, or climate change—and performed experiments on the informational diets of their own users. By way of keeping the metaphor alive, imagine a rash of typhoid cases at a time when the Wall Street is actively engaged in biological warfare against the Lower East Side, and landlords control whether you get the Times, the Post, or the Journal.
Of course having your perception badly warped by an algorithmically opaque news feed is in no way equivalent to contracting a life-threatening disease, even though these sorts of tools have led to real-world violence and genocide. But the problems stem from the same amoral instinct to extract as much value from as many people as possible, consequences be damned. Any true account in the textbooks of the future would be forced to commemorate Mark Zuckerberg as history’s most prolific slumlord.
Reform finally did come, in the form of the 1901 Tenement House Act, which for the time was fairly comprehensive, capping lot usage, and requiring basic amenities like indoor toilets, ventilation, and considerations for garbage removal. “I think a lot of historians of housing really view as one of the most important regulatory laws of housing in the history of the country,” Favaloro said. Importantly, the 1901 law put in place occupancy standards, albeit in the unusual form of cubic feet of air per individual, rather than more modern consideration of ease of egress.
“Some of these reformers who are arguing for these laws—it’s not wholly out of this sense of altruism. They’re not being super benevolent to the folks that live there,” Favaloro was quick to point out. “It’s sort of like, what do hundreds of these unventilated, airless, lightless interior rooms and dozens and dozens of tenements, what are the implications of all of those living circumstances to the broader public health in a period when something like tuberculosis is really sort of endemic.”
Motivations notwithstanding, between 1902 and 1920 New York’s death rate was cut nearly in half, from 19.9 per thousands to 10.96—not a great deal higher than the current national death rate for the country as a whole today. The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the US was recorded less than 50 years later, while tuberculosis affects about 6 in 100,000 New Yorkers; about 6 people also contract cholera per year in the entire United States, with nearly all cases “acquired during international travel.”
Can all these lives saved be chalked up to broad housing reform? Some, certainly. The arc of cleanlier city living mirrors the acceptance of the germ theory of disease, a concept which certainly informed these laws and the importance of which to ending the worst slum conditions in New York cannot be overstated. Where information pollution and data privacy in the information age is concerned, unfortunately we’re still in the process of studying those effects, though our findings are certain to shape the laws to come.
In the late 1800s the Commission—whose express purpose was the investigation of tenements—bemoaned that “the local conditions affecting tenement-house life in New York are unique, and render especially difficult the correction of existing evils.” In those words you can almost hear the same hand-wringing over how to regulate this new crop of undefinable behemoths. Any sufficiently big problem is bound, in some ways, to be unique. The solutions we can happily crib from history: the landlords need to hold a lot less power.
Facebook, and its chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg, have practiced the art of appearing amenable to legislation. In part this is because any new law is likely to have loopholes; any public understanding of data protections sufficiently is easy to obfuscate; any fine is a slap on the wrist; any new outbreak—whether in the form of data or as memes that lead to ethnic cleansing—is easily contained through distraction and promises to do better. Zuckerberg, who is often criticized as so cautious with his words as to come across as robotic, rarely tips his hand in public. There is one interview however, with Wired’s Nicholas Thompson in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which Zuckerberg accidentally gives away his fear of a Facebook where users aren’t living on top of one another amidst heaps of digital refuse.
NT: When you think back at how you set up Facebook, are there things, choices, directional choices, you wish you had done a little differently that would have prevented us from being in this situation?
MZ: To some degree, if the community—if we hadn’t served a lot of people, then I think that some of this stuff would be less relevant. But that’s not a change I would want to go back and reverse.
For Zuckerberg, a man who often says a lot without saying anything at all, there’s no hesitation: between a smaller but potentially more ethically run version of Facebook, and the larger, more profitable one that’s been implicated in data breaches, discrimination, radicalization, electioneering, and genocide, he picks the latter. Perhaps he shouldn’t be the one deciding anymore. The Wild West days of the internet existing as a separate entity from the physical world are long dead. Accordingly, we need basic restrictions over the use of our personal data, and limits on the amount and quality of information internet users are exposed to, even if compliance means tech giants becoming a little less giant.