Tuesday 15 October 2019

Steve Dempsey: Washington lobbying will aid Zuck

Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg at the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg at the House Energy and Commerce Committee in Washington. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Mark Zuckerberg isn't the first young whippersnapper forced to explain how technology works to an older generation. But the Facebook chief executive may be the most high-profile.

This week he appeared before the Senate commerce and judiciary committees to explain the inner workings of Facebook following accusations of users' data being harvested without consent and undermining democracy.

Say one thing for the guy, he was contrite. "I started Facebook, I run it, and I'm responsible for what happens here," he said. "It's clear now that we didn't do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy."

And contrition pays. Facebook's share price went up 4.5pc on Tuesday alone. That means Zuckerberg, pictured, increased his personal wealth by $3 billion on one day alone. Good money for a five-hour shift.

But some legislators did make him squirm for his money. He was asked how Cambridge Analytica was able to access private information from 87 million Facebook users without their consent. He was asked how Facebook differed from the FBI under surveillance nut J Edgar Hoover. He said he would follow up on particularly thorny questions at least 15 times. "While Facebook has certainly grown, I worry that it may not have matured," remarked the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

But most legislators gave Zuckerberg an easy ride. One senator asked whether Facebook could see emails sent on WhatsApp, despite the fact that WhatsApp doesn't send emails and is encrypted. Others asked for a basic overview of how Facebook facilitates targeted advertising, if it had a liberal bias, or was a monopoly.

There was a general sense that Facebook has grown to big to police itself, but no overview of how this could be addressed.

But some form of regulation seems to be inevitable. For Facebook and other technology companies the only questions are how stringent and in which areas.

One area of concern is around users privacy. Europe's upcoming General Data Protection is making waves on the other side of the Atlantic. Zuckerberg was asked whether GDPR style privacy protections should be applied in the US, which would force Facebook to forgo some of its mountainous profits to protect user's privacy. Zuckerberg said he was committed to rolling out the controls around consent that are required in GDPR. However, he also added that there are different sensibilities around privacy protection in different jurisdictions.

Another hot topic is whether Facebook and other platforms are media companies and should be subject to similar laws and regulations. For example, Facebook is a potential goldmine for defamation lawyers, but to date has protected itself by claiming it's not a media company. Silicon Valley's finest have regularly disavowed responsibility for misinformation and harassment by saying: "It's not us, it's our users." Zuckerberg stuck to this line in his senate hearing. But he did make one break with the past, by accepting responsibility for the content on his platform. This new-found willingness to accept accountability seems to be founded on the belief that artificial intelligence will make it possible to spot and police hate speech, harassment or misinformation.

"In the future, we're going to have tools that are going to be able to identify more types of bad content," he said. "I think that there are moral and legal obligation questions that we'll have to wrestle with as a society about when we want to require companies to take action proactively on those things."

Facebook is doing everything it can to avoid onerous regulation. It is rolling out a series of new tools to help users understand the validity of the news that appears in their news feed. News stories will be accompanied by related articles on the same topic and a link to the publishers Wikipedia page. It has banned companies like Cambridge Analytica and AgregateIQ that violate its policies. It is even considering suing the former. Facebook is also playing the "more regulation means less innovation" card, which resonates with politicians.

The most likely outcome is that big tech will become big finance's little brother. It will become regulated. But profits will still be high, and he who lobbies hardest will win. The tech sector is already playing this game. Facebook reportedly spent $52.6m (€42.6m) since 2009 on lobbying in Washington. No wonder Zuckerberg got an easy ride.

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