Government Opinion The Internet

Two Key Questions Zuckerberg Didn’t Answer

Mark Zuckerberg did a problematic interview with Recode in mid-July. The photo shows him on stage at Techonomy 2016,  two days after the U.S. election. That’s when he said it was a “crazy idea” fake news on Facebook affected the vote. (Photo: Paul Sakuma)

Mark Zuckerberg is still failing to explain how he’s fixing his company, the cause of hand-wringing around the world. But the well-informed Kara Swisher made a valiant effort to prod him. She spent an hour and a half with the 33-year-old CEO in a nothing-off-limits interview published as a Recode transcript and podcast.

Swisher pressed Zuckerberg on a range of issues, notably those surrounding speech and media freedoms and how much leeway the social network can and should give to people with reprehensible, wrong, or hateful views. Some observers, like The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo, found his replies hopelessly muddled. The young CEO shot himself in the foot at one point by voluntarily bringing up that the company will not ban holocaust denial, a statement for which he’s now been widely lambasted.

Zuckerberg at least acknowledged that it was healthy for the company that so many of us in the press and government leaders are now showering it with criticism. He also repeatedly conceded past error regarding how Facebook has monitored speech and overseen apps, and didn’t claim the problems with hate speech or political manipulation had been solved. But he said, unconvincingly, that he expected they would be, by a very specific date: the end of 2019.

Yet for all the insights into Zuckerberg’s oddly good-natured-but-imperious personality that the Swisher interview afforded, he didn’t much reassure those many of us who worry about the consequences of Facebook’s longtime failures of governance and oversight. It is causing complicated and often disastrous problems for global political discourse, media, speech, privacy, and freedom, and even, in some countries, social order. The young CEO failed to address two key issues.

The first is money. Zuckerberg acknowledged several times that Facebook has substantially different obligations now that it is highly profitable. It can afford to, for example, hire 20,000 people to oversee electoral interference, or hundreds more to watch Facebook Live videos and alert authorities when someone may be about to harm themselves.

But Facebook isn’t just a company with a nice profit margin. It is the most profitable large company that ever existed. It can afford just about anything. Its 43 percent net margins, on revenues that this year will exceed $55 billion, are unprecedented for a company this size. That means it will have profits this year, after taxes, of roughly $23 billion.

It is inexcusable that a company this profitable has failed to govern itself well enough to prevent extensive social harm. Zuckerberg needs to explain how much he is willing to spend, and how much profit he is willing to forego, in order to undertake the massive crash program that is clearly needed to insure that political manipulation is firmly prevented in every one of the 190-plus countries where Facebook operates.

The kinds of manipulation the U.S. saw with Russian electoral interference and the mis-use of data by Cambridge Analytica have happened in every country. Resolving that scourge in all of the service’s 136 languages will be complex, expensive, and time-consuming. One major complication is that in many countries the creators and distributors of manipulative and distortive fake news include the governments themselves. (Bloomberg has just published a detailed and compelling article explaining just how serious this is.) Some of those governments will not like a crackdown, and Facebook may need to be willing to exit countries where it is prevented.

To clean up fake news and hate speech on Facebook, Zuckerberg claimed, as he always does, that artificial intelligence will be a near-panacea. But he also conceded more people will be needed. He showed eagerness that Facebook should better police its own systems. OK, that’s progress.

But the second key question that did not get addressed is whether or not Facebook itself, on its own, should be the one doing all this policing. Should it be in the position to decide exactly what sort of speech is allowed in almost two hundred countries? Is it capable? The evidence thus far suggests not.

The issue is governance. Facebook is a for-profit company that has stumbled into becoming the globe’s town square. Does that mean it has the sole right to decide and enforce the rules about what can be said and how politics can be conducted there?

Some governments have already set concrete restrictions on online speech that apply to Facebook. But the answer will not always be for governments to have the final say, any more than the company should. This is a new problem for humanity that requires creative new thinking on a global scale. We have never before had a global platform for speech, not to mention one that is patently commercial.

If Facebook thought of itself as a media company it would take responsibility for all the content that appears there, and insure that toxic or antisocial speech was completely banned. But Zuckerberg refuses to see it that way, even as he imposes complex and continually-changing rules on what sorts of speech will be allowed, and admits that he is yet unable to enforce many of those rules.

This one man who determines, in the end, all the company’s policies continues to act like it’s the most natural thing in the world for it to unilaterally decide whether or not you can deny the holocaust, whether or not you can say the Sandy Hook massacre is a hoax, and whether or not you can post and advertise racist, deceptive, dishonest, misleading or hateful propaganda and content in all those countries and languages. That’s just simply ridiculous.

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