A history of recognizing Facebook as a public domain, fully owned by its users
- Jul 16 2020
- Jan Fermon and Jonas Staal Jonas Staal is an artist, propaganda researcher and author of Propaganda Art in the 21st Century (The MIT Press, 2019) based in Athens and the Netherlands.
Jan Fermon is a lawyer specialized in criminal law, international (humanitarian) law and human rights law, and Secretary General of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), based in Brussels.
It’s strange to think that the First Global Pandemic of 2020 triggered such widespread societal transformations. Well before the Coronavirus emerged, the global inequalities undoing the lives of the many had already been unbearable, but from the perspective of the Global North, they had always been external. The famines, the wars and the diseases were “elsewhere” and belonged to the “other.”
Then suddenly, tens of thousands of people from the Global North were dying as well, and they did not have to. The authoritarians and neoliberals had opted for denial, claiming that the virus was a hoax. Or they chose the strategy of sacrificing those most vulnerable to keep the markets open. For even in that pandemic time, state subsidized corporate markets were still untouchable. Despite the fact that global capitalism was the basis for the rapid spread of the virus in the first place, and despite the fact that transnational corporations immediately began to beg for billions in handouts, there was still a near-religious conviction that the only way forward was to return, as fast as possible, to this toxic, extractivist and violent “normal.”
But the biological virus was not the only virus spreading. There was also a new virus of ideas manifesting. A “red virus”, so to speak, awakened a demand for universal health care, well paid care workers and a universal basic income. From our current perspective, these ideas seem reasonable, moderate even, but at the time, they were considered part of a dangerous socialist doctrine, a communist takeover. The physical deaths of those considered non-essential by the ruling elites, non-essential for the maintenance of their profit and wealth, made it all the more clear that the ruling system existed only for them, not for us.
Governments declared: keep your distance, wash your hands. But for whom were these declarations? A large majority of the world had no access to running water, or soap for that matter, or the space required to “distance”. These declarations were not meant for the precariat of millions working zero-hour contracts, holding their piss and shit in Amazon gulags because they weren’t allowed toilet breaks, nor for the migrant workers flown around Europe by Ryanair to do the essential work, even though they were considered non-essential bodies. There were worthy and unworthy victims, and those who held onto the illusion that there was still care left for them became disillusioned. There was no better condition for the red virus to propagate.
"Facebook infringed upon the right to self-determination of peoples and individuals by instrumentalizing its users as neo-feudal data workers and selling their information to third parties"
And so, the red virus spread. And we were a small part of it. Before the pandemic, we worked on a lawsuit against Facebook which, at the time, was a private transnational corporation. A so-called “social media”, even though there was nothing social about it. With about 2,5 billion users it was a private monopoly of a scale and scope that was unprecedented at the time. Facebook infringed upon the right to self-determination of peoples and individuals by instrumentalizing its users as neo-feudal data workers and selling their information to third parties. The corporation was used in various surveillance capacities that infringed upon privacy and further impacted democratic elections in disproportionate ways, of which the data capture and targeted campaigns of Cambridge Analytica became a historic example, not to mention the willful advising of authoritarians such as the former regime of Duterte in the Philippines.
Our initial aim with this Collectivize Facebook campaign was to assemble tens of thousands of co-signatories to our lawsuit and submit it to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Our demand: to recognize Facebook as a public domain, and subsequently turn its ownership over to its users. Essentially, we wanted to enforce the transformation of Facebook into a transnational cooperative, placed under the collective governance of those subscribed to the platform. It would ban advertisement, data capture, support to surveillance agencies and corporate influence. We could socialize social media. As data workers we built it, now it was time to own it.
"Our world is far from ideal, but utopia has always been a site of struggle"
But in the time of the red virus, we were far from the only ones pursuing this path. Tens of thousands of co-claimants became hundreds of thousands and then millions, but not just in our lawsuit. Countless other collectivization efforts sprang up across the world. Slogans were seen and heard: Collectivize Amazon. Collectivize Google. Collectivize Apple. Collectivize Microsoft. Collectivize Bayer. Collectivize Exxon Mobile. Collectivize to claim the right to decide our fate and our future. The lawsuits merged with these diverse forms of action developed by emancipatory people’s movements across the world to birth the new. There was no longer time to file any lawsuits – for the people chanted: “Which law? Our justice!” One by one, the giants fell, and with such ease that it was hard to believe they were ever as big as we thought they were. A new specter haunted the world as one new transnational cooperative followed another.
Our world is far from ideal, but utopia has always been a site of struggle. It’s not that you can’t get there, but that being there demands continuous work. Our confederations of transnational cooperatives, in which both corporation and state have withered away, are not immune to reactionary tendencies. And whereas collectivized Amazon rules through a disciplined people’s committee, the never-ending online assembly to establish a new social contract for Facebook continues to this day. Egalitarianism is a practice, and practices are struggles. Just as the changes we brought about did not make the climate feedback loops disappear, we continue to be, as predicted, haunted by extreme weather, failed crops, millions of climate refugees.
At the very least though, these crises now belong to us as a whole, as we have collectivized our failures as much as our victories. The world of 2038 is no longer “a world”, it is our world.
"Collectivized Facebook" was published in print issue 120, "The New Serenity"