Just about everyone wants things to be run for the good of the public, as opposed to the despotic barbarism abusing it that litters human history. Where we get ourselves into conflict and difficulty is in agreeing on what constitutes the public good in specific circumstances. A very 21st century twist on this conundrum was in evidence over the last two days as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by US Congress over the security of personal information on social media in general and abuse of access to it via an app by Cambridge Analytics of some 87 million clients’ data in party killer.
The amazingly low level of understanding what social media is and how Facebook works among committee members was, on the one hand, alarming but, on the other, probably illustrative of the ignorance among Facebook’s 2.2 billion users how all the information each user voluntarily provides (up ro 21,000 data points) is actually exploited.
Social media has undoubtedly revolutionise communication among people. In this fragmented and mobile society, the ability to easily post news, pictures, videos, etc. to friends and family instantly at no cost seems a no-brainer and explains the meteoric growth of Facebook into a profitable giant, valued around $500 billion. Zuckerberg may be a Harvard dropout but he is no dummy. The brilliance of his business plan was the steal commercial television’s idea all making their “product” free to users and making their money selling access to those users to advertisers.
Along with Google, Facebook has cornered 60% of advertising revenue on social media: their share was worth $40 billion last year. This helps explain how the sheer price is stable around $160, despite glaring media spotlight and 87 million disgruntled users. Compared to an amateur performance wearing a T-shirt in public eight years ago, a suited & booted Zuckerberg gave a polished performance to Congress–despite some harsh and pointed questioning—showing humility, admitting mistakes, apologising and even appearing to accept the need for legislation to control the whole business.
Sounds good—so far.
But, ah hae ma doots. This is not the first time that Facebook has been lax about the implication and use all the terabytes of data it holds. Each time, they have been suitably apologetic but have declined to alter their business model. As an example, proposals of that users should choose whether to share their data or not or strictly policing exactly what apps which access user data can do with it have never been seriously considered, let alone implemented. The unofficial Facebook model is “Move fast and break things”. Not a bad credo for a Silicon Valley startup birthing some future gizmo in some garage. But a global giant (FB is used in Burma to hunt Rohinja and in the Philippines to direct death squads) needs to update its mantra.
Contrite thought Zuckerberg appeared, my money is on him laughing all the way back to Menlo Park. Even if Congress learns techno-jargon, it took them years to pass a tax bill and they have shut Government down three times recently by failing to agree on almost anything. They are unlikely to pass any Real legislation in the rest of the year. So Zuckerberg could afford to play nice and promise almost anything, knowing he could go on building his monster without legal interference.
And, as a kind of the insurance policy, Zuckerberg channels some of his personal $69 billion where it will best ensure minimal interference. This year brings mid term elections in November. Republicans are wetting themselves that the combination of and incompetent Congress under their control, coupled with an erratic and unpopular President Will gift the Democrats sweeping gains in both hands. Given that money is a major Factor in America elections, facebook’s $12 billion in campaign donations (Google ponied up $18 million) Will go far in keeping the Fed’s fingers out of their lucrative pie. Chip in similar amounts being paid to top Washington lobbyists for the same purpose and you wonder if the much vaunted “American system” is fit for 21st century purpose.
The European Global Strategy on Security and Data comes into force next month and will protect EU citizens around the globe. It will protect their data from being “mined” for commercial purposes without their consent.. Zuckerberg may not be a despotic barbarian in deliberately flaunting the public good. But when it comes to social media, tmany more than one are born every minute. And, just like there is an element all the Wild West still apparent in American driving, resource exploitation, town planning and firearms, social media there seems condemned to suffer the same corruption of the meaning of “public good”.