Mark Zucker­berg has lost con­trol of Face­book

There can be lit­tle doubt that monopoly con­trol over mil­lions of peo­ple’s per­sonal data and the flow of news and in­for­ma­tion on­line poses a clear and present threat to democ­racy. And Face­book’s man­age­ment has shown time and again that it can­not be trusted

The Myanmar Times - - International Business - GUY VERHOFSTADT

WHEN Mark Zucker­berg, the chair, CEO, and co-founder of Face­book, ap­peared be­fore the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment in May, I sug­gested to him that he had lost con­trol of his com­pany. As one of the few politi­cians ever to have con­fronted Zucker­berg in per­son, I was happy for the op­por­tu­nity. But, much to my frus­tra­tion, I did not re­ceive a di­rect ver­bal re­sponse to any of my ques­tions.

I am not alone. Politi­cians around the world have grown tired of Face­book’s con­stant at­tempts to avoid ac­count­abil­ity in the name of prof­its. With Face­book, the myth of “self-reg­u­la­tion,” long trot­ted out by high-paid lob­by­ists, has been laid to rest once and for all. It has been months since Zucker­berg ap­peared be­fore the US Congress and the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment, and the most ur­gent ques­tions about Face­book’s busi­ness prac­tices re­main unan­swered.

With re­spect to the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal, it is still un­clear what Face­book knew, and when it knew it. Equally un­clear is the ex­tent to which for­eign in­ter­fer­ence through Face­book con­trib­uted to the elec­tion of US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, and to the out­come of the United King­dom’s Brexit ref­er­en­dum.

Does the seam­less dis­sem­i­na­tion of tar­geted pro­pa­ganda on Face­book still pose a risk to demo­cratic elec­tions? No one knows, ow­ing largely to Face­book’s own dis­sem­bling. Face­book claims to have im­proved its pri­vacy pro­tec­tions. But, given that it has failed to con­duct a com­pre­hen­sive in­ter­nal au­dit of the Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica scan­dal, as re­quested by the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment, there is ev­ery rea­son to fear that the up­com­ing Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment elec­tion in May will be sub­ject to still more for­eign ma­nip­u­la­tion.

Though Face­book and many other dig­i­tal gi­ants have signed on to a Eu­ro­pean Com­mis­sion “code of con­duct” on polic­ing hate speech and dis­in­for­ma­tion, much more needs to be done. The code of con­duct is too weak and does not in­clude a time­line for when com­pa­nies need to meet their com­mit­ments. In ad­di­tion, far more re­sources are needed to en­force the EU’s new Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion, so that tech com­pa­nies can no longer treat penal­ties for the mis­use of per­sonal data as mere costs of do­ing busi­ness.

Europe also lacks a zeal­ous pros­e­cu­to­rial/ in­ves­tiga­tive body that can hold tech com­pa­nies to ac­count. In the United States, Robert Mueller, the spe­cial coun­sel in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion, has handed down dozens of in­dict­ments, se­cured mul­ti­ple con­vic­tions, and demon­strated the need for em­pow­ered pros­e­cu­tors in cases in­volv­ing so­cial me­dia. It is time for Europe to catch up, first by es­tab­lish­ing its own spe­cial prose­cu­tor to in­ves­ti­gate at­tacks on re­cent elec­tions, but also by tack­ling other crimes that arise from the abuse of data.

More­over, the EU ur­gently needs to de­velop a ro­bust mech­a­nism for track­ing and analysing Rus­sian dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paigns across all mem­ber states and in ev­ery lan­guage. Only then will pros­e­cu­tors and other lawen­force­ment au­thor­i­ties have what they need to com­pel tes­ti­mony and pro­vide an ef­fec­tive check against such at­tacks. With the right strat­egy in place, we can pre­vent so­cial-me­dia plat­forms from serv­ing as ac­cel­er­ants of dis­in­for­ma­tion, by iden­ti­fy­ing and stop­ping pro­pa­ganda cam­paigns as soon as they emerge.

At the EU level, the East StratCom Task Force that the Eu­ro­pean Coun­cil es­tab­lished in 2015 should be ex­panded and made in­de­pen­dent from the EU diplo­matic ser­vice. Its sole task should be to iden­tify, an­a­lyse, ex­pose, and de­bunk dis­in­for­ma­tion.

In the long term, though, there is only one sure-fire way to ad­dress the threat that Face­book and other plat­forms pose to West­ern democ­racy: reg­u­la­tion. Just as self-reg­u­la­tion by banks failed to pre­vent the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, so self-reg­u­la­tion in the tech sec­tor has failed to make Face­book a re­spon­si­ble ac­tor.

Reg­u­lat­ing the tech gi­ants should start with up­dated com­pe­ti­tion rules to ad­dress the monopoly con­trol of per­sonal data. And we need new reg­u­la­tions to en­sure ac­count­abil­ity and trans­parency in the al­go­rith­mic pro­cess­ing of data by any ac­tor, pri­vate or pub­lic. But, ul­ti­mately, we should not rule out a break-up of Face­book and some of the other tech gi­ants.

Af­ter all, what I told Zucker­berg in May still ap­plies: he does not ap­pear to have con­trol of his cre­ation. But even if he did, we should all be wor­ried about the “more open and con­nected” world that he has in mind. Just imag­ine tens of thou­sands of low-paid Face­book “em­ploy­ees” in In­dia and else­where scru­ti­n­is­ing our ev­ery word to de­cide what con­sti­tutes fake news and hate speech, and what does not.

As The New York Times re­cently re­vealed, Face­book is so des­per­ate to pro­tect its busi­ness model that it hired a shad­owy PR firm to spread anti-Semitic mis­in­for­ma­tion about one of its lead­ing crit­ics, the fi­nancier and phi­lan­thropist Ge­orge Soros. Such out­ra­geous be­hav­iour sug­gests that Face­book has much to hide. And, as it hap­pens, a UK par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee has just seized in­ter­nal Face­book emails show­ing that the com­pany may have known about ma­li­cious Rus­sian ac­tiv­ity on its plat­form as far back as 2014.

There can be lit­tle doubt that monopoly con­trol over mil­lions of peo­ple’s per­sonal data and the flow of news and in­for­ma­tion on­line poses a clear and present threat to democ­racy. Face­book’s man­age­ment has shown time and again that it can­not be trusted to be­have re­spon­si­bly. There is no rea­son why we, the peo­ple, should put store in any of the com­pany’s prom­ises to man­age our data or clean up its act. Self-reg­u­la­tion has failed spec­tac­u­larly. It’s time for the real thing.

‘There can be lit­tle doubt that monopoly con­trol over mil­lions of peo­ple’s per­sonal data and the flow of news and in­for­ma­tion on­line poses a clear and present threat to democ­racy.’

Guy Verhofstadt, a for­mer Bel­gian prime min­is­ter, is Pres­i­dent of the Al­liance of Lib­er­als and Democrats for Europe Group (ALDE) in the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment and the au­thor of Europe’s Last Chance: Why the Eu­ro­pean States Must Form a More Per­fect Union.

Photo: EPA

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