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Global Tech Net Giants

David Kirkpatrick’s Travel Journal: JFK-SIN-MUC, Facebook, Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg at the DLD conference, 2019.

No matter where I go in the world, people want to talk about Facebook. Because I wrote The Facebook Effect, I’m a magnet for opinions about what may be the most controversial big company on the planet today. Because it is also perhaps the most influential big company on the dialogue in global society, what happens to it next is of urgent importance. And of course, I always have my own opinions to share…

I’m in the midst of a round-the-world swing for Techonomy, doing interviews and moderating programs.

My first stop, 22 hours later, was Singapore…

That country is seriously contemplating new laws addressing what its government calls “deliberate online falsehoods,” AKA fake news. At a hearing in early 2018 after the Cambridge Analytica revelations emerged, a Facebook executive named Simon Milner was relentlessly grilled by Singapore’s Minister of Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam, in an incident that still resonates in the country.

In the affluent island nation, I interviewed Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang both onstage at a conference hosted by the Nikkei Asian Review and on audio for an upcoming new Techonomy podcast series. While there I heard all kinds of strong opinions about the challenges posed by Facebook and other global net giants. “Criminal negligence in data management,” were the words used by one government official. “Digital colonialism,” said a Singaporean technologist.

But I also heard concerns not mentioned in the U.S. about the growing challenge posed by TikTok, the short video sharing sensation that local expert there called “the first global Chinese app.” It’s owned by Chinese online giant Bytedance, which last year merged it with Musical.ly, another Chinese app that had developed a huge following in the U.S. and other developed countries. Now Tiktok has huge usage in Singapore, and in some recent months was the most downloaded app in the U.S. “I anticipate Tiktok will increasingly play the role that Facebook has played in online political campaigns,” another government official told me. By that he meant – not a positive role. The new Singapore laws would apply to a wide range of companies and apps.

Then I had a great dinner with three impressive young Singaporean entrepreneurs. Bjorn Lee runs Mindfi, a mindfulness app that encourages you to incorporate meditation throughout your day. Kenneth Bok oversees both Blocks, a “blockchain services platform,” and the De/Centralize conference. And Mohan Belani runs e27, which operates a range of media and services to provide “tools and resources to Asia’s tech ecosystem.” Sitting with them in a fancy restaurant club near Singapore’s downtown favored by the local tech community, it was apparent that startup energy is as real here as in New York or Palo Alto.

Later I boarded a late-night flight to Munich, where I was attending the wonderful DLD conference, which I find to be Europe’s best place to understand how tech is changing society and the world.

Organizer Steffi Czerny, and Burda, which owns DLD, go to great lengths to gather the world’s most edgy and relevant thinkers in tech, the arts, business, and government. And this year they scored a major coup – hosting Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in her first conference appearance since the company’s recent series of scandals and problems.

“Protecting privacy and showing relevant ads are not at odds,” Sandberg declared in her slick, highly scripted, and generally unconvincing speech. She took no questions. The audience was unimpressed. Despite the packed-to-the-rafters house, she received only tepid applause when she walked offstage.

She acknowledged in her presentation that Facebook’s very business model is being questioned, which was in itself a kind of breakthrough. But the scope of the challenge she faces in trying to rebuild trust and confidence in Facebook is indicated by the emergence only a day before her talk of a new cover story in Time Magazine written by Roger McNamee, entitled “I Mentored Mark Zuckerberg. I Loved Facebook. But I Can’t Stay Silent About What’s Happening.” In it, he says “The harm to public health, democracy, privacy and competition caused by Facebook and other platforms results from their business models, which must be changed.” He believes targeted advertising which depends on detailed information about users is an intrinsically dangerous system. It’s rough out there for Facebook, all around the world.

Now I’m at Davos, where Sandberg continues her apology-but-not-really-an-apology tour.

There’s tons going on here around the related issues of data protection, the impact of tech on jobs, the growth of 5G communications networks, and other fascinating topics. More on that in my next missive.

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