Two U.S. House and Senate committees, in two days, were able to accomplish the impossible. Their examination of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg found me rooting for Zuckerberg. No small feat, since Zuckerberg for at least a decade has been the poster child for gross privacy violation, and an emblem of Silicon Valley’s indifference to the humanity of internet users.
A few thoughts:
1) Facebook is now a Rorchach on which politicians can project their own agendas. The drug warriors, for instance, channeled their opioid fury at Facebook for facilitating the sale of the drugs. One of them went so far as to suggest that Zuckerberg is personally responsible for the opioid crisis.
Racial discrimination, political bias, fake news, hate speech, child endangerment, you name it. If it’s bad, Facebook and Zuckerberg took a two-day beating for it. He was pressured repeatedly to vow public support for certain pieces of pending legislation, and could only sputter in response to demands for a yes-or-no answer, right now, that the details in such bills would be important. Which is the only answer a lawmaker deserves from a reasonable person.
2) Many legislators weren’t particularly interested in reasoned responses, or any responses at all, really. Repeatedly, even after questions concerning Facebook’s intricate back-end operation, Zuckerberg was interrupted before he could squeeze out a complete sentence.
“I apologize, Mr. Zuckerberg,” said elected officials with ticking stopwatches, who were allotted five minutes apiece. “But I have four minutes left (for me to be on camera asking penetrating questions that were written for me by someone else — someone who understands Facebook, which I clearly don’t. Quickly now, I must now demonstrate my concern about issue XYZ).
3) Who knew that there is a Technology Accountability Caucus? Yes, there is (newly formed), and boy are they mad! Which bodes ill for…
4) … free speech. Overnight, a new breed of Congressional Content Warrior has emerged. Get out your tin foil hats, First Amendment advocates, there’s a regulatory gamma-ray-free-expression-particle storm brewing, with dubious implications for online speech platforms, and more broadly for technological innovation.
5) On the issue of responsibility for the content, Zuckerberg gave up a lot of ground — more than he needed to, I think. In his determination to be polite and respectful, he failed to convey that some of the interrogators’ assumptions were patently stupid.
It’s logistically impossible, even for a boy genius leading an army of 20,000 in-house censors, to perform an instant take-down of every objectionable post arising from a pool of 2 billion users, and still carry out the mission of providing a social platform for the world.
In other words, the beauty of Facebook is also something for which it is vilified. It was disappointing that Zuckerberg wasn’t more comfortable asserting this very legitimate defense.
He did try vainly, many times, to explain that user-generated content is policed primarily by other users, who alert Facebook when something is offensive, and there is an orderly system for content review. Despite mass-adoption of user-generated content platforms, people still don’t grasp how they work. And by people, I mean legislators who have the power to control the future utility of social media, and the profitability of an enormous economic sector.
6) Zuckerberg clearly thinks all objectionable content problems will be solved by Artificial Intelligence. In the five-year plan, AI will identify hate speech, with human linguists assisting in the short term. This is a chilling prospect, even if the AI applications could be taught to distinguish authentic hate from sarcasm, jest, and transparently dumb, trivial utterances. In dozens of languages.
7) And who, among content producers, thinks that the Facebook standard, once it meets the satisfaction of the regulators, will not apply to everyone in the business? Moreover, if get-tough legislators are true to their record, they will incorporate some kind of criminal punishment for violations.
Then they’ll move on to the next political Rorchach, leaving it to the courts to sort out the mess in a series of lengthy, expensive, life-ruining cases.
8) There’s much more, but that’s enough for now. I consumed a bit more than four hours over two days, and then walked away because the questioning was maddeningly repetitive, and the legislative preening was no longer bearable.