I’m a little scared. And it’s Facebook’s fault.
The thing is, for the longest time, the world was organized into discreet territories with their own sovereignty, powers, and abilities to control the trade that crossed their borders. They could physically stop something or someone from entering their country by holding them up at the border or turning them back at the airport. With the advent of the internet and, particularly, Facebook and social media that use (and arguably abuse) their abilities to cross borders at whim, the territorial sovereignty of countries is no longer effective.
You see, Facebook (and I’ll use Facebook as a stand in for the myriad companies that gather data of users for various purposes across borders online) only has one corporate domicile, in the United States. But it’s operations cross the globe and have, in fact, become an integral part of billions of people’s lives to the point where they are entering into contractual obligations, sharing private data, and creating and participating in other civil rights that may arise from activities on their sites. They control who is deemed to be fraudulent and who can post certain things on their feeds. Increasingly, too, there are some people who see them akin to a state actor in that they should be responsible to obligations (in the United States at least) of the protection of free speech and other constitutional rights that traditionally only accrue to representatives of the state. They collect funds and disburse funds and they collect and manipulate data.
And perhaps this is the most terrifying aspect of social media and the internet.
Theoretically, an individuals identity belongs to the individual with which it is identified. The few jurisdictions that have legislated the concept have similar though slightly different definitions of who owns what data, but in general, an individual owns her own data. It follows, then, that they have the right to use and trade that data the same way they would an asset like currency or commodities. This creates civil rights in the data, the right to protect it, the right to say who can use it, the right to deny its use, among others.
In a recent report on the website clario.co, titled Big Brother Brands Report, the cybersecurity company analyzed dozens of major social networking sites and determined what percentage of possible data they collected from users. This information ranges from name, birthday, gender, to sexual preference, location, and bank accounts. But it also includes access to all of a users image library and even access to the face, voice, and appearance of anything in the images or video which an individual either posts or uses to identify themselves on or too websites.
The company that collects the most data is Facebook, which collects 79.49% of all available data categories from users. It is followed by its brother website Instagram, which collects 69.23% of all available data. The numbers trail off from there, but hands down Meta, the owner of both Facebook and Instagram, collects the most data of any company in the world.
And here’s the scary part.
There are approximately 66 million Facebook users in Vietnam. Citizens of a sovereign nation that exercise their civil rights and the assets of their personal data on one website that has no physical domicile in the country. They are voluntarily giving up their rights to control the data they share to an American company. A United States company controls the data of almost two thirds of the citizens of Vietnam, two countries that until the 1990s were enemies.
It’s a little discussed element of China’s refusal to allow Facebook into that country. Most discussions focus on the damage such a decision did to civil and human rights, to freedom of speech and ideas, and to the ability of the country’s citizenship to access information about and from the West. Oddly enough, when the United States did the same thing to Chinese companies under the Trump administration, no one complained about China’s right to share their ideas with the United States or to have an online dialogue with American citizens. No, the discussion focused on the data and the privacy and the control of information in the hands of a potentially hostile government.
Despite the spin put on the various actions of governments, the truth is, that by allowing Facebook to control so much data and information about the individuals in a foreign country, that country is allowing a United States citizen access to more information than has been traditionally available to the best spies and saboteurs during wartime.
And taking the instance of China and Facebook, if a country like Vietnam, which is already under scrutiny for some of its actions by Western democracies, were to block Facebook from its borders–even if it did so with the very legitimate interest of protecting its citizens from control and abuse by a foreign national–it would be ostracized by the global community and even possibly hit with sanctions based on what is a very real and important decision for national sovereignty and independence.
More, there is nothing Vietnam can do to control or limit Facebook beyond what Facebook chooses to let it. Without any physical assets in the country, Facebook can avoid taxes, can avoid responsibility for violations of the law, and can behave as an essentially unregulated actor in everything it does in Vietnam because it is not in Vietnam subject to any legal agreements, treaties, or commitments. There is no privity, no legal connection between Facebook and the Vietnamese government and the only threat that Vietnam has is to cut the site off from the country completely, an act that–as suggested–would create a furious uproar in the global community full of outrage that Vietnam was violating some mythical human right of its citizens to use social media.
Facebook, and the other social media giants, which are based in one country but act globally without benefit of treaty or legal structures, has created a new type of sovereign. Or at least, if they are to be fairly regulated and the balance of power across borders is to remain in place, they need to be created as a new type of sovereign. As United States corporate citizens, they can easily skirt the regulations of external countries with minimal risk, and in this way they can become a serious threat to foreign countries who may not want the United States to have access to all of its data.
What is required is a decoupling from a specific country. The location of the corporate headquarters needs to be disconnected from the legal jurisdiction and the global actor needs to become a new type of international organization capable of entering into its own treaties (or at least commitments) with countries and subject to a globally agreed set of rules and guidelines that will be enforced by a global majority rather than minority governments acting as “rogues” to protect their citizenry from an overpowering American data taking. The exact structure such a reshuffling might take is unclear, but it is necessary if countries like Vietnam (like any country other than the United States) is going to have a legitimate chance to stand up to the likes of Facebook in any meaningful ways other than shutting off all access to their territorial boundaries.