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Why We’re Obsessed With Facebook

Mark Zuckerberg at Techonomy 2016: a "crazy idea" that fake news on Facebook helped elect Donald Trump. (Photo: Paul Sakuma)

As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg goes before Congress, Techonomy is in a unique position to provide context. Facebook has always been a central focus for us – in 2010-11 our founder David Kirkpatrick wrote the definitive history of the company’s early years, The Facebook Effect. Still the only journalistic account of the company, it was written with the close cooperation of CEO Mark Zuckerberg and the company’s other executives.

The book lays out Facebook’s origin story and shows both its incredible potential for positive impact on society, and the perils that could come along with that. Since then, we’ve been a supporter of Facebook as a force for good, and occasionally a critic of the way the company’s governance so completely depends on one man, as it wields enormous impact on speech and behavior in 190-some countries. If you want to get a sense of how much we’ve covered the company, take a look at the list of stories to the right, in the “More on This” box. Click “expand” for a taste of just some of the stories we’ve done.

Two days after the 2016 election, Zuckerberg sat on stage at Techonomy 2016 and famously declared: “Personally, I think the idea that fake news on Facebook, of which it’s a very small amount of the content, influenced the election in any way is a pretty crazy idea.” He also refused, in response to four separate questions from Kirkpatrick, to directly address the question of whether or not Facebook had a unique responsibility to society given its vast scale. Asking him that was Kirkpatrick’s main aim in conducting the interview. The production of the quote of the year was an accidental byproduct. View the full interview here.

For all our gratitude at Zuckerberg’s presence, even then we were deeply concerned that his company, along with Google and Amazon, was gaining unreasonable scale and influence. Society had not properly reckoned with that, nor did it have a realistic means to do so. So we closed out that same conference the next morning with a panel discussion entitled “Internet Giants and the World.” It included VC Bill Gurley, then on Uber’s board, Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and VC Hemant Taneja, who was already sounding the alarm that these companies were unmanageable at their current scale.

One year later, the tone throughout Techonomy 2017, last November, was downright hostile toward the net giants in general and Facebook in particular. Roger McNamee, Managing Director, Elevation Partners, and an early Facebook investor, declared that Facebook had “destroyed Western civilization.”  See the full discussion here.

At the same event, a panel of Mark Mahaney, a top internet analyst at RBC Capital Markets, Dave Morgan, CEO of NY-based ad technology company Simulmedia, and former Federal prosecutor Joyce Vance, now a professor at The University of Alabama, broached the topic of regulating the internet giants.  The session was called Reckoning with the New Hegemonists.

And Kirkpatrick wrote a lengthy feature in our print publication released that month entitled: “Amazon, Facebook, and Google: Too big to tolerate. Too big to stop.” It was the first time he had expressed such intense alarm that these companies were escaping society’s grip.

More recently, since the news of the Cambridge Analytica data breach, EPIC’s Rotenberg wrote an exclusive account for us about the chain of events that led to the consent decree between Facebook and the FTC, which it increasingly looks like Facebook may be fined for violating: “How the FTC Could Have Prevented the Facebook Mess.” Rotenberg was key to initiating the complaint that led to it.

Kirkpatrick last week took a stab at imagining what kind of regulatory or oversight regime might actually work for Facebook, in a piece for the tech-industry news service The Information, entitled Facebook is Unwieldy by Design. It Needs Independent Oversight.

And Techonomy’s Jeff Pundyk, wrote about the advertising systems that drive Facebook and other media companies and the impact Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation could have on them.

This week, as  Zuckerberg testifies before both the Senate and the House, Kirkpatrick will be in Washington to commentate on Bloomberg Television, where he appears regularly. He may weigh in here as well.  Stay tuned for ongoing coverage.

And here are some other interesting sessions from past Techonomy conferences that included Facebook executives:

-Adam Mosseri, who oversees the Facebook News Feed, spoke at Techonomy 2015.

-David Marcus, chief of Facebook Messenger, spoke on stage at Techonomy 2014 with Bloomberg’s Emily Chang.

-At Techonomy 2012, we hosted Sam Lessin, then a top product executive and protege and partner of Zuckerberg’s, in conversation with David Fischer, VP of business and marketing partnerships and a top deputy to COO Sheryl Sandberg. The session was called “The Facebook Effect, Continued.”

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