COMMENTARY | The great thing about the Internet is that it's a true bastion of free speech. You can say whatever you want in an email, or on your personal blog, and Big Brother's not going to come in with a black marker and censor your words. Right?
Right ... to an extent.
The Great Wall of Facebook
See, Facebook isn't like email. Anyone can set up their own email address with a bit of technical know-how, and a computer hooked up to the Web. That's because email's not owned by any one company; it's essentially in the public domain, and is a standard that anyone can use.
Same with blogs, more or less. Nobody owns the concept of a "blog," and tons of different websites offer a free blog just for signing up. The most popular blogging software, WordPress, is even open-source, meaning anyone can download and use it themselves. Don't like the free hosted service on WordPress.com? Download WordPress yourself and roll your own. 6,800 people do this for a living, and make millions of dollars as WordPress consultants.
Facebook's not like that. It's completely owned by one company. If you don't like your email provider, you can just change your address, but if you don't like Facebook you're sunk. You're out of the loop. You can't even register for a Facebook account using a pseudonym, to protect your privacy (like from a stalker ex-husband); Facebook's terms of service forbid that, and it can and will shut down your account.
Wait, there's more
Facebook's only real competition is other, privately held websites, like Twitter and Google+. And apparently, mentions of either website either have been or are being censored by Facebook.
Ari Herzog discovered in 2009 that Facebook was censoring posts he made containing the word Twitter, or even the phrase "Facebook sucks." Meanwhile, Eran Abramson on Google+ discovered Facebook was keeping the Google+ invites that he shared with his friends from appearing to them on his wall ... even though he could see them himself.
So Facebook may be censoring its competitors, in such a way that it's hard to even detect what it's doing. And if that doesn't scare you, this might: It also appears to be censoring certain political bloggers from posting links to their content. Some posts, like this list of President Barack Obama's achievements, are apparently blocked from appearing on Facebook at all, no matter who's posting them.
Why this is a problem
From a certain point of view, Facebook is acting within its rights. It operates its service for profit, and is allowed to make the rules for what goes on inside it. If you don't like those rules, nobody's putting a metaphorical gun to your head and keeping you from deleting your account.
This view doesn't accord with reality, though. Because as Facebook gets bigger and bigger, it's starting to become the new email -- the de facto medium of communication for everyone on the Internet. If you don't have a Facebook account, you can't use certain websites, can't be a part of certain friends' lives, and are basically shut out of the conversation.
The reality, then, is that Facebook is becoming the new arbiter of the First Amendment, and deciding what you can and can't say in the biggest forum in the world. Nobody elected Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to that position; he just ended up there once his service got popular. And now that he has it, he's not planning on giving it up.
How to fix this
The last time something like this happened, with the Bell/AT&T telephone monopoly, it took decades for the behemoth to be broken up by antitrust action. But we don't have decades to fix something that happens at Internet speeds, and we don't want to live in a world where the powers that be are as abusive as today's telephone service providers.
Instead of simply breaking up Facebook, it should be forced to become open and interoperable, LiveJournal-style. Social networking site LiveJournal's programming code is open-source, allowing spinoff sites like Dreamwidth to coexist with it. Dreamwidth users can post comments on LiveJournal users' blogs and vice-versa, and can read each others' friends-only posts. And if one site does something that its users don't like, they can go to the other and keep their friends lists and everything. It's less like switching from Facebook to Google+, and more like switching from Hotmail to Gmail.
Unfortunately, the government's not likely to force Facebook to do anything of the sort, any time soon. So it's up to us to look for a fix to Facebook's abuses of power, even if that means taking our business elsewhere.