Power and responsibility - Is Facebook a service or menace?

The dark side of internet technology in general and Facebook — which now owns WhatsApp and Instagram — in particular have been among the many problems governments have wrestled with throughout 2018. They remain unresolved as we welcome the new year. Like the hydrogen bomb, the technology cannot be uninvented, yet legislatures around the free world struggle to find ways to curtail its destructive power.

The European Union’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, talked this week about the ways in which technology’s potential has been damaged by data abuse and lack of respect for individual rights, and called for concerted international action. We have heard all this before; many times. Something must be done is the call, after which little if anything is done until the next bout of hand-wringing. The masters of the wired universe, safe in Silicon Valley but seemingly citizens of nowhere, are impervious to censure.

Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, rarely if ever struggles to find the banalities needed when his operation has issues — or problems in plain English — that promise trouble for its share price or reputation. “The Facebook story,” he believes, “is a great example of how, if you’re building a product that people love, you can make a lot of mistakes.” But even he would have to accept that his product, with what he likes to call its “community” of 2.2bn users, has endured another year, notable more for its alarming and sometimes lethal gaffes, rate than its achievements.

Nothing seen or heard about Facebook suggests that Mr Zuckerberg has made significant progress in fixing its problems, which in January he set out as his mission for 2018: “Facebook has a lot of work to do — whether it’s protecting our community from abuse and hate, defending against interference by nation states, or making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent.” Since then, hate speech published on Facebook and WhatsApp has been blamed for mob violence in India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, the platform has been targeted by the Russian and Iranian governments in attempts to undermine US elections, and the account details of 87m users have been hacked and harvested.

Concerns about the company’s tax arrangements in different jurisdictions — including this one — persist and, perilously, for a business whose income is entirely dependent on advertisement revenue, it has owned up to embellishing its video view numbers, not a sales prank likely to encourage confidence in what the platform says about the reach it has.

It’s been alleged that the company commissioned an attempt to smear its critics by claiming they were agents of the billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who has noted: “The internet monopolies have neither the will nor the inclination to protect society against the consequences of their actions. That turns them into a menace.” Few if any of these worries were dealt with satisfactorily when Mr Zuckerberg most reluctantly faced questioning by US legislators, many of whom showed themselves to be as baffled by the company’s structure and its technologies as most of the rest of us. His response to an invitation to the House of Commons in London to meet parliamentarians from 10 countries — including Ireland, Canada, France and Brazil — was to decline, sending instead an executive in charge of something called “policy solutions”.

One of Facebook’s policy solutions this year was to hire a not spectacularly successful British politician — the former Liberal Democrat party leader Nick Clegg. He was the deputy prime minister in David Cameron’s coalition government, a supporting role for which the centrist Lib Dems were punished severely by voters in the 2015 general election. As Facebook’s head of global policy and communications — a spectacular job title by any measure — his job when he starts in California next month will be to prove Soros wrong. Don’t bet the farm on his success. It might be that Facebook is now simply too big — and its algorithms too clever by half — to provide a service that protects users from abuse, hate speech, fake news, terrorist content, malign foreign governments and data thieves.

As for making sure that time on Facebook is well spent, that’s a value judgement that only a user can make.

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