The plan to take the sting out of regulation
It beggars belief that the front man for Mark Zuckerberg has been sent out to plead for regulation, writes Ray Snoddy. But what should be made of Nick Clegg's PR démarche?
As Deputy Prime Minister in the 2010-2015 coalition government, Sir Nick Clegg – with the possible exception of the student fees U-turn - has had a bum rap.
The decision to prop up an unpopular austerity-driven Conservative government terminated Sir Nick’s political career and took the Lib Dems to the edge of the precipice.
Yet the coalition government, compared with what passes for government at the moment, was a model of competence and stability.
History may yet treat the culmination of Nick Clegg’s political career kindly.
Judgments about his current occupation as the multi-millionaire global PR man, strategist and apologist for Facebook are unlikely to be as forgiving.
It beggars belief that the front man for Mark Zuckerberg, who has for years been like the brass monkeys with ears and eyes covered, neither hearing, seeing nor admitting evil, has been sent out to plead for regulation.
As The Times put it: “When a powerful company such as Facebook starts calling for its own industry to be regulated, the rest of us are entitled to count our spoons.”
Governments should get together to create a new “template” for the internet. But nothing too severe of course, because that would risk throwing out the good the internet does with the bad.
And anyway, the case against the social media is much exaggerated.
The social media, according to Sir Nick, did not invent the new, virulent populism which is threatening to undermine liberal democracies across the developed world. The two just happened to come along at the same time.
The link between use of social media and the mental health of teenagers and young people is “very small”.
Tell that to the family of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who took her own life in 2017 and who found distressing material about depression, self-harm and suicide on her Instagram feed.
There was no evidence of a “significant attempt” by Russia to use social media to try to influence the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Cue disdain from the investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr and the comment “horse manure” from Labour MP David Lammy.
Sir Nick appears to have changed his mind on this since moving to California.
“We’re all familiar with the evidence of Russia-based bots and trolls spreading pro-Brexit messages online,” the former Lib Dem leader wrote in the i newspaper last year.
In his Berlin speech Sir Nick did admit that Facebook had failed in Burma. Failure indeed. Facebook being used as the organisation tool for genocide directed at Myanmar’s Rohingya minority just as it was used to stir up anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka.
The charge sheet continues but Facebook’s apologist-in-chief claimed that only around 200 people saw the live Facebook stream of 51 people being murdered in Christchurch.
The real problem was the huge numbers that reposted the video afterwards, including the mainstream media.
Why, in the 24 hours following the New Zealand far right shooting Facebook had taken down 1.5 million versions of the video – 1.3 million of them before they had even been reported.
Let’s not forget the anti-vaccination movement. That’s also probably something that has occurred alongside the rise of the social media rather than as a direct result of it – although events in the Philippines are suggestive.
Some of the lowest rates of vaccination just happen to accompany countries with the highest social media use in the world, with 75 million of the 76 million users there are on Facebook.
So governments should draw up “rules of the road” on everything from privacy and what constitutes hate speech, to use of personal data and how elections should be covered.
Then there would be an oversight committee.
“Oversight committee? Pull the other one,” was how Labour deputy leader Tom Watson responded on Twitter.
What should we make of all this?
It could hardly be more obvious or clear. A “respectable” European former politician has been sent out to argue for mild regulation to try to take the sting out of calls for something rather more robust.
Such an approach would actually protect and entrench Facebook’s existing monopoly. Potential rivals would find it difficult to cope with such things as compliance costs, which are already posing a noticeable burden on Facebook.
Above all, this PR démarche is designed to try to head off growing demands that the only workable solution to the problem is to break Facebook up into its constituent parts.
As one of the company’s co-founders Chris Hughes noted in a newspaper article, Facebook’s domination is so complete that it is not threatened by any “market-based accountability”.
A new kid arrives on the block with a new idea and Facebook, which owns both Instagram and WhatsApp, buys them up or copies their ideas.
Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Senator who is one of the Democratic hopefuls emerging from the herd, is arguing for the break-up of Facebook.
There is nothing particularly new or surprising there – although a break-up could easily become much more likely if the Democrats were to overturn the Trump White House.
What is staggeringly, jaw-droppingly new, and bare-faced cheek to boot, is the fact that Facebook, with its 2.3 billion subscribers and monopoly of social media, personal data and online advertising, should now aspire to create another monopoly – over money.
A week before they offered to cede ground and appeal for modest regulation of social media, the company announced the launch of Libra, an attempt to get round all those troublesome regulatory rules on banking and money laundering.
From next year punters will be able to hand Zuckerberg even more of their money in exchange for Libras, which will be pegged to a basket of major currencies.
It has some of the aspiration of a bitcoin, but as one commentator said it also reeks of “the anarcho-capitalist dream of private money without governance or regulation.”
The fact that Steve Forbes, the billionaire owner of Forbes magazine, loves the idea should be warning enough.
In an open letter to Zuckerberg, Forbes says the new currency could take its place alongside the inventions of coins and paper money.
“It could replace the US dollar as the global currency,” Forbes predicts.
Perhaps governments and regulators should pay attention this time. They allowed Zuckerberg to create one monopoly before belatedly waking up to the implications.
It would be decidedly careless if they allowed Facebook to leg them over once again.