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What Would John Stuart Mill Do—to Fix Facebook?

Former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, recently hired to manage the beleaguered tech giant's global affairs and communications, digs the liberal-utilitarian theorist.

Nick Clegg (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Silicon Valley’s liberal branding can seem paradoxical given its political impact. The scandals that accompanied the 2016 election—Cambridge Analytica, Russian interferencerevealed that Facebook had contributed to the election of one of the least liberal presidents in history. The company has also been criticized for a host of other sins similarly at odds with Silicon Valley’s liberal technocratic vibe: hijacking attention, compromising privacy, and disseminating content that incited violence.

Faced with mounting pressure over such public relations setbacks, and increasing threats of regulation from the EU, the company hired former British deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, in October as the new Vice President of Global Affairs and Communications. Some saw it as a lobbying attempt: As of this month, the ex-leader of the United Kingdom’s Liberal Democrats has officially moved into Menlo Park, but his time in Brussels as a Member of the European Parliament has endowed him with important contacts in Europe. Others see a “bold” attempt to address Facebook’s critics: Clegg, for one, says he took the job because he enjoys “engaging and grappling with difficult questions.”

Unlike many politicians, Clegg’s political outlook is consciously shaped by the legacy of a political philosopher: John Stuart Mill. Mill was instrumental in formulating the philosophical foundations of nineteenth-century progressive political movements, including liberalism and feminism. His book On Liberty, published in 1859, remains the definitive defense of the liberal notion that the individual’s freedom is the best road to a just and happy political community. On Liberty is also one of Clegg’s favorite books.

So, how would a Mill-inspired liberal approach the criticisms that Facebook is facing? “I think what distinguishes liberalism,” Clegg told Five Books editor Sophie Roell in May 2017 when asked about Mill’s seminal work, “and why it’s very radical and is still radical, is that it believes that there is something beautiful and good and dynamic and positive about the freedom that individuals have to shape their own lives as much as possible—as long as it doesn’t intrude negatively on other people’s lives and other people’s freedoms.” It’s known as Mill’s Liberty principle: the idea that the state should not interfere in the affairs of individuals, as long as they are not harming others or limiting their freedom.

Mill’s concept of harm is notoriously slippery: It’s not necessarily clear how the Liberty principle would apply in cleaning up Facebook. Mill probably wouldn’t have much objection to Facebook’s attention-hijacking maneuvers, for instance. It’s your choice how you procrastinate, and as long as you’re not harming others in the process, the government shouldn’t patronize you by micromanaging. When it comes to privacy, again Mill might have argued that by agreeing to the terms and conditions, one voluntarily consents to giving Facebook access to some private data. But grabbing and holding attention for as long as possible, while mining data users may not fully be aware they’re giving for more effective ad targeting? The voluntary nature of data sharing there is questionable.

Complicating matters further, Mill encouraged states to protect people’s rights—such as the contemporary right to privacy some legal frameworks now recognize. But what counts as a right, according to Mill, is specifically something without which human happiness cannot be maximized. We can’t be sure whether data privacy would have been the kind of thing Mill would have thought necessary for maximizing happiness.

When it comes to the 2016 election-related scandals, there are two separate issues: The dissemination of fake news stories with the aim to spread confusion and short-circuit the democratic process, and the use of data by third parties, such as Cambridge Analytica, with the aim to influence voters in very personalized ways.

Mill wouldn’t have seen the spreading of fake news as problematic. When discussing freedom of speech, Mill argued that not only are false views not damaging, they are actually beneficial. Encountering and combating false views helps prevent the truth from becoming “dead dogma,” Mill wrote: Truth would constantly need defending and reaffirming. Mill seemed to believe that an open, free debate meant the truth would usually prevail, whereas under censorship, truth could end up being accidentally suppressed, along with falsehood. It’s a view that seems a bit archaic in the age of an online marketplace of memes and clickbait, where false stories tend to spread faster and wider than their true counterpoints.

But Mill did also believe that some cases called for the limiting of the freedom of expression. When it is highly likely that one’s remarks will lead to the physical harm of others, then you can be punished for them by the state. The enabling and dissemination of inflammatory content believed to have contributed to the genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar would very much fall under that category: In a series of posts going back years, The New York Times reported last fall, military personnel in Myanmar “turned the social network into a tool for ethnic cleansing,” taking advantage of the platform’s ubiquity to spread propaganda vilifying the county’s minority Muslim group, who were then repeatedly massacred.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal also illustrates where the utilitarian theorist would have objected to Facebook’s practices. Being careless with the way users’ data is shared with third parties is one thing. But attempting to psychologically profile Facebook users in order to then present each of them with the content most likely to influence their voting goes beyond merely improving advertising, toward a form of manipulation threatening what Mill’s liberalism cared about most: the individual’s freedom. Some technology commentators, like Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, have even seen Facebook’s power to manipulate our behavior as confirmation that free will is an illusion. That’s an extreme conclusion to draw from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but a deep concern with the potential ways in which Facebook might be undermining our autonomy should be close to any liberal’s heart, and something that would justify limiting its power by constraining the amount and kind of data it is legally allowed to collect.

The danger of concentrated power and its capacity to interfere with our freedom was a fundamental concern for Mill—and liberalism more broadly. “Its philosophical roots,” as Clegg himself explained in his 2017 interview, “are about how arbitrary and random power—whether it’s in the hands of monarchs or governments or the nobility or religious leaders—should not trump (excuse the pun) and be given priority over the innate rights and freedoms of individuals.” Liberals, from Mill onwards, typically focused on the state’s power and potential unwanted interference: If the government was collecting our location throughout the day, our sexual orientation, political beliefs, relationship status, psychological state etc. as Facebook is, liberals, like Clegg, would justifiably be calling for action. Arguably, though the topic stands outside the classic liberal tradition, a company doing that is worse, since Facebook’s CEO and chairman Mark Zuckerberg is less accountable to the public than even the most powerful government official.

It’s impossible to know how Nick Clegg will approach his new role as Facebook’s mediator between the technology company’s activities and its political consequences. And Mill’s liberalism might not be the political philosophy that can provide all the tools for combating the harms that Facebook is inflicting on us. But a suspicion of concentrated power and a concern for individual autonomy is a good place to start. If liberals, like Clegg, recognize that it’s not only states, but also private companies—especially those amassing the personal data of over two billion people world-wide—that can pose a threat to freedom, Silicon Valley could wind up helping liberalism as much as liberalism could help Silicon Valley.