Mark Zuckerberg has never been known for taking a particularly restrained approach to business. The Facebook founder and chief executive has instead lived by the company’s notorious motto, “Move fast and break things”—making decisions that can affect the lives of the platform’s 2.32 billion users and either apologizing or deflecting blame when those decisions have negative consequences.
On March 30, the Washington Post published an opinion piece written by Zuckerberg that seemed to suggest he had adopted a more circumspect mindset. In the article, Zuckerberg called for government regulation of Internet platforms. “By updating the rules for the Internet,” he wrote, “we can preserve what’s best about it—the freedom for people to express themselves and for entrepreneurs to build new things—while also protecting society from broader harms.” Zuckerberg identified four areas of concern for regulators: harmful content, election integrity, privacy, and data portability.
The Post article prompted an April 2 rebuttal in the Guardian by Roger McNamee, who called Zuckerberg’s piece “a monument to insincerity and misdirection”. McNamee knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the threat posed by Internet platforms—in fact, he wrote the book on it. An early investor in Facebook and a former mentor to both Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, McNamee is also the author of the book Zucked, which makes a case that the social network has caused real damage in a number of areas, from public health to global geopolitics.
Zuckerberg voiced his support for regulation in the immediate wake of the February publication of Zucked. McNamee isn’t convinced there’s a causal relationship between the two.
“I assume it’s a coincidence,” he told the Georgia Straight in a recent telephone interview. “But how do I know? They won’t speak to me, so I don’t get any direct feedback. The thing is, I applaud Mark for at least trying to be part of the discussion now, because until just a few months ago, they were pretending like there was nothing to see—in the face of mounting evidence that there was not only something to see, but that it’s really horrible, and it’s not coincidental that it’s the result of a business model, algorithms, and a culture that made catastrophe inevitable.”
As McNamee outlines in Zucked, there have actually been countless catastrophes. One is an entire generation becoming hooked on the dopamine hits provided by spending more and more time online. Another is the decimation of innovative startup culture by the monopolistic tendencies of companies including Facebook, Google, and Amazon. Another is the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which—whether there was collusion by the Donald Trump campaign or not—was subject to interference by bad actors employing trolls and bots to spread disinformation. Still another, more tragic, example is the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, where allies of the ruling party used Facebook to promote violence against the Rohingya minority.
And none of that even touches on the impact that Facebook and other platforms have on our privacy as individuals. McNamee thinks we should be asking more questions about that.
“Why is it legitimate—why is it legal—for a service provider like Google or Microsoft to scan your private emails or your private business documents for data that’s economically valuable to them?” he says. “Why are they not treated like the post office, where they have to just move the mail without looking at it? Why is it that third parties are allowed to buy and sell and trade your most personal data? So this is your financial data, your location data, your health data. I mean, the health data, they can only trade the stuff off of health and wellness apps, but that’s really powerful stuff. Why is it legal for companies to track you as you move around the Internet? Why is it legal to gather data about minors who aren’t old enough to even give consent? I believe that that third-party commerce in our most intimate data is extremely harmful, because it essentially allows Google and Facebook, and now Amazon and Microsoft, to create a data avatar for every consumer—even the ones who are not on their platforms—and with those data avatars, they’re able to manipulate people’s behaviour.”
By now, you’re probably wondering what, if anything, you can do about all this. McNamee has a few suggestions; in fact, he devoted the last two chapters of his book (titled “The Future of Society” and “The Future of You”) to them.
“There are two things that everybody can absolutely do today,” the author tells the Straight. “First, make sure you protect children. We need a lot less technology in children’s lives, and we need it to come much, much later than we thought. The other thing is, people need to talk to their elected representatives wherever they live. I mean, it would be amazing if Canada would ban the sale of third-party data, right? If any state in the United States did, it would be amazing. It would be amazing if people basically litigated these people for theft of our digital identities.”
McNamee has identified a number of key actions that individuals can take to protect kids, safeguard privacy, promote innovation, and restore democracy. Find them at the Zucked Book website.