Feb 20, 2017 by

The Observer view on Mark Zuckerberg

His Facebook vision is anything but benign
It is wrong to be lulled into a false sense of security by Mark Zuckerberg’s benign tones.
It is wrong to be lulled into a false sense of security by Mark Zuckerberg’s benign tones. Photograph: Esteban Felix/AP

‘Are we building the world we want?” Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire CEO of Facebook, asked last week in a 5,700-word post that was quickly dubbed a “manifesto”. He used it to launch a strident defence of globalisation, striking a discordant note with the populism of contemporary political debate, and to set out his vision for the role he believes Facebook should play in creating a better world.

While Zuckerberg appears to acknowledge some of the criticism that has been levelled at an increasingly powerful Facebook in recent years, it would be wrong to be lulled into a false sense of security by his reassuringly benign tones. In his post, he signals a shift in Facebook’s mission, historically focused on giving people the power to share and connect. On Friday, Zuckerberg wrote “the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us”.

But there is something chilling in Zuckerberg’s failure to recognise that Facebook is already a for-profit form of social infrastructure, with immense and unprecedented power over our lives. And in making its profit, Facebook creates social value, yes, but also social harm.

Facebook’s stunning reach extends beyond that which any other company has ever had. A quarter of the world’s population – 1.86 billion people – have Facebook accounts. Facebook shapes the way they consume, process and interact with information, and with each other. It got there by pursuing aggressive growth strategies. For areas of the world where consumers cannot readily afford the internet access required to consume Facebook, it has developed a superficially philanthropic initiative,, to give consumers in the global south free internet access. But look deeper, and it is clearly about building Facebook’s user base and profits, offering strictly limited access: just to Facebook and a few of its partner sites. Banned by Indian regulators after a public outcry mobilised by local internet entrepreneurs, in several other countries, it has faced little pushback.

Facebook’s monopoly-style power extends far beyond people’s internet access. Together with Google, it has cannibalised the online advertising revenue so vital to enabling the investigative journalism that has never been more important in today’s world. Zuckerberg barely acknowledges Facebook’s role in the accelerating demise of the traditional media, and offers nothing beyond inane platitudes.

By filtering the information we see, Facebook also changes the way we think. Its algorithms – whose design, of course, is motivated by profit – function as editors, pushing us to content that we are most likely to find engaging, from people we are naturally drawn to.

In doing so, Facebook facilitates the filter bubbles that mean we are increasingly consuming content created by people who think and act exactly like us, and has done little to combat the spread of fake news. Zuckerberg writes “our community will identify which sources provide a complete range of perspectives so that content will naturally surface more”.

But there is nothing “natural” or organic about an editorial process. Facebook has a duty to make its editorial algorithms transparent so its users know what they are consuming.

Like other corporate giants, Facebook has done all in its power to minimise its tax bill, paying a fraction of what it owes the societies from which it draws its profits, undermining the very social infrastructure Zuckerberg claims to want to build. Yet Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have the gall to argue that government should pay everyone an unconditional basic income while one of its biggest darlings pays hardly any tax. It forewarns of a feudal-type world where a select few own all the technological wealth and pay the rest of us just enough to eke out a basic subsistence.

Save perhaps Google, no other company matches Facebook’s influence. But it signals a bigger shift in economic power, enabled by technology, away from consumers, producers and employees, to platforms such as Uber and Airbnb that add infrastructure rather than productive capacity to the economy.

Our outdated systems of national and international regulation lag far behind the way they operate. While there are no laws to stop apps such as Deliveroo slashing by half tomorrow the prices it pays the couriers it claims are self-employed, there are laws to stop companies doing that to their employees. Treating people well shouldn’t be in companies’ gift: it should be the law.

All this is happening at a time when the boundaries between politics and business are blurring, with a billionaire president who has brought corruptive conflicts of interest into the White House. By Zuckerberg’s own admission “in recent campaigns around the world… we’ve seen the candidate with the largest and most engaged following on Facebook usually wins”. If Zuckerberg were to run for president in the future, as some have speculated, would he be all but unbeatable?

This is not an argument about corrupt, all-powerful individuals. Zuckerberg’s philanthropy suggests his self-professed desire to create social value is genuine. Rather, Facebook is the grim sign of something going seriously wrong in our economic model. The balance of economic power – so critical in holding companies accountable – is tipping in favour of a small group of companies in a corner of California that governments are proving unwilling or unable to properly regulate.

Zuckerberg’s pitch is a warning to us all. If he really wanted to do good, he would be launching a debate on how governments can regulate new-age natural monopolies such as Facebook, and publishing Facebook’s algorithms to make them as transparent as newspaper editorial policies. But Zuckerberg is a businessman, not a political leader: why should he do this when it risks profits?

Facebook’s success is prophetic of a future in which we may all have to rely on a few all-powerful companies benevolently gifting us scraps like grants for struggling media organisations, or a meagre basic income to supplement poverty wages. But today, consumers and citizens still have the power to demand something different, and the laws of our lands still have the power to enforce it. We should act while we can.

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