David R. Johnson and David Post have published a fascinating essay, “Governing Online Spaces: Virtual Representation,” at the Volokh Conspiracy, arguing that Facebook ought to move towards becoming something like a representative democracy. While various attempts at regulating Facebook and other online services and communities from the outside are a frequent topic of discussion, including, for example, here and here, Mr. Johnson and prof. Post raise a different, albeit related issue, that of internal governance.
At present, Facebook’s relationship with its users is akin to that of a “benevolent dictator,” or perhaps an enlightened absolute monarch, a sort of digital Frederick the Great, with his subjects. That relationship is governed by the Terms of Service (TOS) that users must accept in order to use Facebook. And the company reserves the right to change those Terms of Service at will. As the law now stands, it is entitled to do so. But, say Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post, this is wrong as a matter of principle. The principles of “self governance and self-determination” mean
that all users have a right to participate in the processes through which the rules by which they will be bound are made. This principle is today widely accepted throughout the civilized world when applied to formal law-making processes, and we believe it applies with equal force to the new forms of TOS-based rule-making now emerging on the Net.
Market discipline―the threat of users leaving Facebook in favour of a competitor―is not enough, because the cost to the user of doing so is unusually high, due both to the users having “invested substantial amounts of time and effort in organizing their own experience at the site” and to network effects.
But attempts to have users provide input on Facebook’s Terms of Service have not been very successful. Most users simply cannot be bothered to engage in this sort of self-governance; others are ignorant or otherwise incompetent; but even the small portion of users who are willing and able to contribute something useful to Facebook’s governance comprises way too many people to engage in meaningful deliberation. Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post propose to get around these problems by setting up a system of representation. Instead of users engaging in governance directly, they would
be given the ability to grant a proxy to anyone who has volunteered to act on his/her behalf in policy discussions with Facebook management. These proxy grants could be made, revoked, or changed at any time, at the convenience of the user. Those seeking proxies would presumably announce their general views, proposals, platforms, and positions. Anyone receiving some minimum number of proxies would be entitled to participate in discussions with management — and their views would presumably carry more or less weight depending upon the number of users they could claim to represent.
This mechanism of virtual representation would, Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post argue, have several benefits. Those seeking and obtaining proxies―the representatives in a virtual democracy―would be people with the motivation and, one expects, the knowledge seriously to participate in Facebook’s governance. Representation sidelines extremists and gives power to the moderate voices and the silent majority ignored by direct democracy. At the same time, it gives Facebook the means of knowing how users feel about what it does and what it proposes to do differently in the future, which is handy for keeping them happy and avoiding having them rebel and desert to a competitor.
The proposal is not―”yet”―for a full-scale virtual democracy. Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post accept that Facebook will retain something like a monarchical veto over the demands of its users’ representatives. Still, it is pretty radical―and pretty compelling. By all means, read it in full.
As Mr. Johnson and prof. Post recognize, “there are many unanswered questions.” Many of those concern the details of the virtual mixed constitution (to borrow a term from 18th-century political philosophy) that they are proposing, and the details of its implementation. But here’s another question, at which their discussion hints without quite reaching it.
Suppose Facebook reorganizes itself into a self-governing polity of some sort, whether with a mixed constitution or a truly democratic one. What effect would this have on its dealings with those who wish to govern it from the outside? Mr. Johnson and prof. Post write that “Facebook’s compliance with the clearly expressed will of the online polity would also surely help to keep real-space regulators at bay.” But what if it doesn’t? Not all of those regulators, after all, care a whole lot for democracy, and even if they do, their democratic constituents are citizens of local polities, not of a global one. Could this global democratic polity fight back? Could its members
dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them?
Mr. Johnson and Prof. Post allude to Alexander Hamilton and James Madison as their inspiration. But what about Thomas Jefferson?