Holding Facebook to account...can we have a better strategy, please?

23 May 2018  |  Raymond Snoddy 
Holding Facebook to account...can we have a better strategy, please?

Enough with ineffective committees - perhaps only a forensic inquiry led by an intellectually tough individual is going to find a solution to the problem of Facebook, writes Raymond Snoddy

The only thing we have learned from Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before the European Parliament in Brussels is how not to interrogate one of the most powerful and controversial people in the world.

The MEPs insisted on, and got, an open session that was streamed live. But that was their only victory. The scale of yet another Zuckerberg win was told in the markets. After his 90 minute "interrogation" the Facebook share price, which had already inched its way back to the pre-Cambridge Analytica level, remained flat on the latest stage of his apology tour.

The reason was a format that could not be more perfect for an agile executive to side-step, or simply refuse to answer difficult questions.

First you get the prepared statement, which is also pre-released, in which the now standard themes are deployed: the number of jobs created (10,000 in Europe by the end of the year), taxes paid in every country where Facebook operates, up to a point. And of course the company is very, very, very sorry for not getting to grips earlier with abusive and terrorist related material, fake news, interference in elections and allowing developers to get too much access to personal data.

We clearly didn't have a broad enough view, Zuckerberg laments. Did I say sorry enough?

"It had become clear over the past couple of years that we haven't done enough to prevent the tools we've built being used for harm as well," added Zuckerberg.

Time to come clean then on how such terrible things could possibly have happened? Not exactly.

The leaders of the parties in the Parliament had to bundle all their questions up in a ball and then Zuckerberg was able to pick and choose which ones to answer, which to ignore and - another Facebook tactic - deflect with the promise to get back to the questioners in writing.

Politicians being politicians by the time the roll call of questions was over there was only seven minutes left for answers - even people less smart than the Facebook founder could have coped with that.

At least we do know that Zuckerberg is not against regulation as long as it is the "right" kind and he is also happy with the "principle" of complying with the General Data Protection Regulations.

But as to whether he was the person who decided against making public news of the mass leak of personal data via Cambridge Analytica in 2015, or whether the Facebook chief executive would make "a moral and legal commitment" to protect the privacy of EU citizens, answer came there none.

You can be sure that MP Damian Collins and his Digital, Media, Culture and Sport select committee would have made a better fist of it which is presumably one of the reasons why Zuckerberg didn't turn up in London - that and an unaccountable preference for talking to representatives of 27 countries rather than an increasingly isolated one.

Around the time that Zuckerberg was dusting down his apologies for another outing, Cultural Secretary Matt Hancock was edging his way towards an Internet safety strategy and a white paper later this year.

Of course any moves to tackle cyber bullying and sexual exploitation online are welcome and the initiative has highlighted the finding that six in ten adults had seen offensive or inappropriate material and four in ten had actually been abused.

But here's the problem, Hancock accepts the conventional wisdom that digital technology is "overwhelmingly" a force for good in the world and it's just the Wild West element that needs to be addressed by legislation.

So does he mean the Wild West element in the sense of those responsible for circulating abusive and terrorist material, spreading fake news, interfering in elections and misusing personal data on a gigantic scale? The Culture Secretary can't surely be talking about someone like Mark Zuckerberg?

Almost certainly not because he outlines his approach in the following way.

"We strongly support technology companies to start up and grow and we want to work with them to keep our citizens safe," says Hancock.

Fine as far as it goes but it is not certain that such an approach goes nearly far enough in the light of the travelling Facebook apology tour and the lack of transparency about what happens next.

Certainly it is unlikely to impress digital technologist Jaron Lanier whose latest book is Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Account Right Now.

For Lanier, continuous behaviour modification through the coming together of an always on smartphone with a tracking device and advertising amounts to "a weapon of mass social destruction."

According to Lanier in a Sunday Times interview it is no accident that Twitter seems to attract extremists and bullies, that Instagram makes you sad and that the rise of Facebook coincided with social breakdown.

Wherever Facebook arrives democracy recedes all around the world, and has been well documented by helping to spread hate speech in Myanmar that contributed to the genocide of Rohingya Muslims.

His 10 argument charge sheet against the social media is not exactly scientifically rigorous. They range from social media makes you an asshole and destroys your capacity for empathy to undermining truth.

Lanier is on stronger ground when he argues that as a result of social media, society has "darkened a few shades."

But in the real world it is hardly likely that 2 billion Facebook users are going to terminate their accounts.

If Lanier is too extreme and Hancock verging on too soft, what would work?

All ideas are welcome but Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, suggests a 5 per cent royalty on Facebook revenues to pay for public works while others suggest turning the social media giants into public utilities.

Others reach for the regulate and fine option but the reality is that no-one has really got close to a solution so far which protects society and democracy while retaining the positive aspects of connectivity.

Perhaps when Robert Mueller has finished his special counsel investigation into the affairs of President Donald J. Trump he would take on an inquiry into the rise and impact of Facebook.

A forensic inquiry led by an intellectually tough individual rather than committee-led questioning might be the way forward - and who knows, Mueller, a decorated former Vietnam officer, might before long be an all-American hero.

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