Monday 20 May 2019

Don't shoot the Messenger: my take on meeting Mark Zuckerberg

SATURDAY INSIGHT

Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Mark Zuckerberg in Dublin. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Who is Mark Zuckerberg?

We got a slightly better idea in Dublin last week.

In person, Mr Zuckerberg is candid, shy and awkward. In between Dublin appointments, he came across a little like a teenager, unsure where to look or what to do.

But in those meetings, he was relentlessly on message. There was no ambiguity left around a series of focused policy and regulatory messages.

The 34-year-old billionaire, arguably the single most influential person in the multi-trillion euro tech world, spent a full day in Dublin.

His goal was to lobby legislators and regulators in one of Facebook's four most important European capitals.

He also wanted to shore up morale among Irish staff, often in the firing line in successive, unending PR scandals and privacy crises.

He even made a bit of time to talk to some of the press (you can listen to him speak on The Big Tech Show podcast at independent.ie/podcasts).

While Mr Zuckerberg spent the majority of the day on-message, he also answered some questions fairly candidly. In the process, he gave some insight into the way he thinks about things.

For example, he admitted that some of the things Facebook has done didn't look good, even while continuing to defend those actions.

Take the administrative stroke that Facebook pulled on the eve of GDPR's introduction last year to reclassify some 1.5bn users away from Ireland's regulatory responsibility.

Critics of the company say that this was a cynical exercise, a deliberate attempt to avoid the higher data protection standards that GDPR brings.

Mr Zuckerberg admitted in Dublin that the optics of this weren't good, even more so because part of his roadshow at present is to argue for GDPR-like standards in the rest of the world. But he didn't resile from it. The company, he said, executed this move for technical reasons as much as for business ones.

Similarly, on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Mr Zuckerberg told TDs that he doesn't think Facebook was to blame for much. So when asked, he said that he wouldn't be dropping the company's appeal to the British privacy regulator's £500,000 (€584,000) fine on the matter.

Mr Zuckerberg knows that Ireland's issues with Facebook are Europe's issues.

Ten out 15 statutory inquiries currently under way by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) under GDPR relate to either Facebook, Instagram or WhatsApp.

Helen Dixon is effectively the social networking giant's core European regulator.

And Facebook has some big plans that Ms Dixon's office will be central in deciding.

For example, he wants to merge Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp much more closely for messaging purposes. The Irish DPC office is currently lukewarm on the idea, not least because they haven't yet given Facebook the go-ahead for tighter advertising links with WhatsApp.

This isn't deterring the Facebook chief executive, who sees it purely as a matter of making the apps 'better'.

Indeed, on issues of governance and regulatory oversight, Mr Zuckerberg appears not to see any real threat coming down the line.

This is a little surprising, given that his company owns the four biggest online communication platforms (Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, WhatsApp) outside email.

One of his talking points is that regulators in Europe and the US need to be mindful about over-regulating western companies like his, because to restrict them much more might be to hand greater influence to companies based in less scrupulous parts of the world, like China.

TikTok, which is probably the fastest-growing new social media platform among younger people, is a case in point.

To push the point home even further, Mr Zuckerberg said that GDPR should be deployed as a way to level the playing field with Chinese-based platforms like TikTok.

GDPR, he said, should also start to look at where data is stored - shorthand for taking a closer regulatory rein on tech rivals that have data servers in China, such as Apple.

"GDPR is as important for what it doesn't do, which is require companies to localise data and store systems data in a given country," he said, referring to Apple's compromise with Chinese authorities, where it stores data in servers located in that country. Facebook and Google are not allowed to operate in China.

"We can take this for granted in a country like Ireland or in the US where there's a strong rule of law and respect for human rights. But in a lot of the places around the world, those aren't a given.

"What we see is that there are some competing visions for how the internet goes and what the future of that will be."

There were issues he didn't spend much time talking about, such as child protection.

Then again, few under-13s use Facebook, a point often lost on older TDs who lump all online platforms together.

Irish Independent

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