Facebook Should Be a Nonprofit

(Bloomberg View) -- Facebook users have no way to opt out of advertising because the company’s business model won’t allow it, the company’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said in a “Today Show” interview last week. If users could request that their data not be used for advertising purposes, then Facebook would have to be “a paid product,” Sandberg said. But beyond the alternatives Sandberg laid out — Facebook users can either be targeted with ads, or pay Facebook to avoid them — there’s a third option: Facebook could become a nonprofit organization.

If the idea of internet companies eschewing opportunities to make money with advertising sounds crazy, consider this: Some of the first proponents of the idea were the founders of Facebook and Google. In his book “The Know-It-Alls: The Rise of Silicon Valley as a Political Powerhouse and Social Wrecking Ball,” journalist Noam Cohen reports that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg originally didn’t want ads to show up in a person’s news feed unless a friend had “liked” a particular product. He changed course, Cohen says, under pressure to deliver profits to investors.

Similarly, in a 1998 paper Google’s founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, warned about the dangers of ad-supported search engines, predicting that they would be “inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” For example, they wrote, a search engine that sold ads to a cell-phone company might feel pressure to suppress negative search results about cell phones.

But internet users need to see information like this in order to make informed decisions as consumers. Commercial considerations alone shouldn’t determine what shows up on our Facebook news feeds or Google searches. We also need accurate and balanced reporting in order to perform our civic duties — not the fake news which has circulated on Facebook of late and pieces from sources we already agree with, which the author and activist Eli Pariser says leave us in “filter bubbles” and have contributed to America’s heightened political polarization.

Forty-three percent of Americans often get news online and 67 percent of Americans turn to social media for news, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey. The raisons d’etre of social media platforms should be to share vital information, provide a forum for public discussion, and help connect the world — not just to sell ads to politicians and corporations.

It wouldn’t be unheard of for an internet heavyweight to reinvent itself as a nonprofit: One example is Wikipedia. The internet encyclopedia, which was originally funded by a dot-com company, is now run by a nonprofit organization. Ann Ravel, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley Law School, said a company like Facebook could convert to nonprofit status by buying out shareholders and complying with the IRS requirements for 501(c)(3) organizations.

Facebook is often the first to claim that it is driven by a social mission. In an interview with Fast Company last year, Zuckerberg said, “I think the core operation of what you do should be aimed at making the change that you want … What we are doing in making the world more open and connected, and now hopefully building some of the social infrastructure for a global community — I view that as the mission of Facebook.” There’s a name for an organization with a pro-social mission. It’s called a nonprofit.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Kara Alaimo is an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University and author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She previously served in the Obama administration.

To contact the author of this story: Kara Alaimo at kara.s.alaimo@hofstra.edu.

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