Does Facebook need a constitution?

We have a name for that kind of power: sovereign power, as in supreme and unchallenged. It’s the kind of power that until recently we only associated with states, but that increasingly also lies in the hands of other, non-state institutions — suprastate entities like the E.U., but also the global megaplatforms that own the internet: Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Zuckerberg correctly insists that Facebook is a “company,” not a nation state, but it’s become something that resembles a state when you squint at it — it holds near-supreme power over media and civic attention. But rather than the liberal, rights-based sorta-state we all seem conditioned to expect — and that Facebook implicitly encourages, with its invocation of free speech and its reliance on legalish mechanisms like “community standards,” which can be “violated” — the platform is a dictatorship, with none of the transparency, accountability, or checks on power we associate with liberal states. This is the tension on which the Infowars/Holocaust-denial problem turns — if Facebook is indeed a sovereign power, we don’t want it to be a dictatorship. But we also know it’s not a liberal democracy.

What, then, do we do? One solution would be to, well, turn it into a liberal democracy — or at least something near to that. In a recent essay, the lawyer (and recently named president of Demos, a liberal think tank) K. Sabeel Rahman suggests that we’re reaching a “quasi-constitutional moment” for Facebook and its fellow megaplatforms like Google and Amazon. For Rahman, the way to ward off the “arbitrary, dominating power” of “quasi-sovereigns” like Facebook is through constitutionalism — that is, the design of institutions to ensure accountability, transparency, and clear limits on power structures. In other words, Facebook needs a constitution. Maybe not a literal, actual constitution (or maybe so!) — but some kind of new power structure needs to be imposed for it and the states whose sovereignty it threatens to make peace.

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