One hundred cardboard cutouts of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg were erected this week on the lawn outside the Capitol building in Washington.
The cutouts, bearing T-shirts with “Fix Fakebook” written on them, were placed on the neatly cut grass ahead of Mr Zuckerberg’s appearance in front of the US Congress.
This was meant to be a time of reckoning for the company’s CEO. Facebook is facing scrutiny following allegations that the London-based political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica obtained data on tens of millions of Facebook users to try to influence elections.
But its transgressions go way beyond that. The world’s most popular and most profitable social media network has exposed at least 87 million people’s data, enabled foreign propaganda, and perpetuated discrimination.
Avaaz, the advocacy group behind the cutouts stunt, said it “intends to call attention to the hundreds of millions of fake accounts still spreading disinformation on Facebook”.
They were unable to put any inside the Capitol building but there was no need, as Mr Zuckerberg, during his two-day grilling by American lawmakers, was no more revealing or animated than any of those cardboard cutouts. His response to senators was cynical and pre-progammed, akin to holding a phoneline and declaring “your call is important to us” while ignoring the caller. He knew in advance that each senator had less than five minutes speaking time, so all he had to do was shadow-box with apologies and count time to the bell.
His treatment of the House of Representatives was even more contemptuous, as he set the tone in advance of appearing there with a long, rambling prepared statement.
All these shenanegans in Washington may seem far removed from everyday life in Ireland. Yet the reality is that Facebook is as ubiquitous here as it is in the US.
The nature and scale of the serious data breaches are such that it is not exaggeration to say they pose a threat to democracy, not just in America but in other countries as well. As it stands, Facebook is operating with impunity while making billions of dollars in profit. It needs to be regulated but the likelihood of that happening Stateside is remote, given the tame response by members of the US Congress.
The only real prospect lies in the EU — most specifically in the form of new General Data Protection Regulation due to come into force next month.
When GDPR was first proposed, US commentators dismissed it as a piece of jealous protectionism by Europe. Now The New York Times is calling for similar rules in its editorial pages.
GDPR covers not only individuals based in the EU, but also data that is processed there. And, since Facebook’s global data processing unit is in Ireland, that means any of its users outside the US and Canada are subject to its terms. Facebook users from Australia to Zimbabwe will get new rights.
From May 25, Mr Zuckerberg will have to take note of EU legislators even if he can blithely dismiss those in Washington.