There are ideas, there are laughable ideas, and then there's "nationalize Facebook."
Upon first checking my Twitter timeline Thursday morning, I noticed a Tweet from the estimable Radley Balko of The Huffington Post, asking "Serious people think these things?" and linking to a Slate column. Title of said column: "Let's Nationalize Facebook." Sub-title: "Only then will the social network protect users' rights and share valuable data with researchers." Am I reading that right... putting Facebook under government control will safeguard its users? I figured the author had to be some kind of academic type. When I came to the bottom of the article, sure enough, I saw that Philip Howard is a professor at the University of Washington, currently on a fellowship at Princeton. (Perhaps he's been running in the same circles as Paul Krugman - that might explain this column.)
To be sure, Facebook has its flaws. I've read documentations of them in lengthy detail, from a friend who is about as virulently anti-Facebook as one can be. I won't repeat them here, because not only are they private communications, they likely contain many unsourced claims. But putting that social network under the direct control of the federal government would be like getting the worst result from cross-breeding two deadly strains of bacteria. A super-threat, if you will. I figured it wouldn't take too long for somebody to refute all the claims Professor Howard makes. I've read three such refutations:
Ed Krayweski, Reason: "Once the government nationalizes something, it becomes, by definition, too big to fail."
Jeff Bercovici, Forbes: "What would be the effect of demonstrating that the reward of building the most envied company in America — one that’s actually profitable and employs thousands of people and provides a platform for other businesses, large and small — is getting seized by the government? What effect would that have on the flow of capital?"
To that last question, my first thought was "ask Microsoft," but I don't think that situation is quite analogous. Regardless, if Facebook's problems are really that bad, then the answer is for competing services to launch and offer better service. If they do, then Facebook will end up on the next train on the same line that MySpace, Compuserve, and Prodigy took to the footnote section of Internet history. In fact, there are plenty of people who think that's well within the realm of possibility. It also might be supported by the performance of Facebook stock since its initial public offering — and unlike Professor Howard's idea, it isn't a complete non-starter.