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Facebook testimony: Confusion than clarity
The social media giant is uncomfortably sliding into a situation where it has self-appointed itself a role of a guardian to run world affairs. The new Internet economy needs a new script and playbook
Hush. Lights, camera, privacy! Agreed, the words sound a discordant note in this order. But this is what happened this past week. A flurry of photographers mobbed and aimed their lenses at one person — at the centerstage was a debate on privacy, ironically in a room flooded with flickering flashlights. Thanks to the live streaming of the proceeding, the entire world could witness the much-touted historic Facebook US congressional hearing proceedings. Here are some of the highs and lows of the event as also some of the unanswered questions left in its trail.
A room full of Senators with an average age of 50-75 years, struggling to come to grips with the working of tech companies, didn’t make a perfect impression, to begin with. Committee members read questions from the briefing material prepared by their hired experts and staffs. Uneasy pauses, stutters and limp questions — all gave a sense of a session more staged than spontaneous.
There was also a glaring information asymmetry in the room and it was clear in whose favour it was loaded. Members went round in circles and struggled to get to the heart of the issue. They displayed a mix of awe, fear and suspicion for the technology sector. Few lauded and almost sounded like patting a charming kid sitting in front of them. Chief Executive Officer of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg appeared to be confident and seemed more powerful than the lawmakers in at least the supernatural power he wields.
The format adopted for such a ‘historic’ hearing was also unexpected. On the first day, a total of 44 Senators gathered and each one got a measly five minutes to ‘grill’ the CEO and to try and make sense of what is happening, with hardly any time for follow-up questions. There was more confusion than clarity at the end of it all.
Questions posed were so plain vanilla at times that one felt as if he/she were witnessing a tutorial session. This is when the world is confronted with one of the biggest challenges of this century — a largely unwritten Internet economy and fundamental questions around how we will lead our lives and safeguard our privacy.
Not to mention, there were some instances of subtle questions with devastating effect that kept the viewers’ interest from sagging. One Senator wanted to know if he is comfortable telling the audience in which hotel he stayed last night. Zuckerberg looked baffled at this oddball question thrown at him. Here, he gained his composure; shook his head, smiled and said he can’t disclose the information, inducing some laughter in the room. And this in simple terms, the Senator said, is the crux of the privacy debate.
In a reversal, there were times when questions raised seemed like asking for permissions from the CEO. Some included: “Would you agree with regulation? Are you too powerful?” Some even asked Zuckerberg to propose policies! One felt the debate could have been more in-depth and nuanced.
Day two, however, seemed rather different. The tone and tenor of the questions were more probings. The original story of ‘Facemash’ which many people do not know, came to light. This was the name of the website launched by Zuckerberg when he was in college.
Basically, the site scrapped student’s photos from the college’s (Harvard University) internal website, pair the photos of the students and ranked them, as to which pair was hot, all without the consent of the students. This, in a way, contextualised the debate on day two hearing. The House brought some unknown facets to the debate with hard-hitting questions.
The confessions: To his credit, Zuckerberg admitted mistakes and indicated to the “philosophical shifts” that Facebook is undergoing. He appeared calm and composed and even gave to continue for an extended session when Senators offered him a recess. He admitted, “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, it is our mistake, it is my mistake.” This statement, repeated during the time, seems to have pleased aggressive Senators in the room.
Then came a few more confident and striking statements — 20,000 people would be hired in the coming months to monitor the content globally. Assurance about Facebook’s commitment to ensuring poll integrity also followed the discussions. Really! How come Facebook is assuring conduct of free and fair elections?
Do sovereign countries require Facebook involvement to conduct its most basic and fundamental democratic exercise? Are we now so helpless that without the benevolence and arbitration of Facebook, we cannot run our own affairs?
With billions of people posting content every day on the platform, how far is monitoring it feasible and practical? Will employing an army of people — to track the content — the most effective way of solving the issue of the spread of malicious content and fake news?
Has Zuckerberg ended up overpromising on a host of things? And why has Facebook gotten into perhaps every conceivable area under the sun rather than just sticking to its core product offering — to keep humanity busy with posting ‘frivolities’ of life, cat pics and what all?
Bizarre as it sounds, Facebook is uncomfortably sliding into a situation where it has voluntarily self-appointed itself a role of a guardian to run world affairs. Some Senators even wondered if Facebook is becoming a superstructure of political discourse.
The questions: Keeping the apologies and tall assurances aside, there are a lot of sticky questions. What is Facebook?
No convincing answers yet. Is it a political campaign tool; a news publisher; an advertiser’s platform; a chat platform; a media company; a technology company; or is it a website?
A clear-cut classification would be a good starting point to frame the operating rules.
Considering the algorithms form the heart and mind of the platform, it is detrimental to ask what and who is/are involved in writing these algorithms? How objective and value-neutral is the process? Is it even possible to create a bias-free platform?
Facebook pages for each individual is unique, customised and dissimilar. There is no uniformity or unified feed on the platform. Then how does one compare and evaluate such a messy jumble of digital information in a virtual world?
Other industries have to submit voluminous reports and documents on compliance procedures. How do we ensure Facebook complies just like any other industry? What should its audit process look like?
The new Internet economy needs a new script and playbook. Information architecture and structures are being laid by move-fast-and-break-things brigade with very little institutional oversight. Catching up is no more an option.
It is for the policymakers to act swiftly and if needed, arrest, alter and adjust the course to make the Internet economy not just chaotically grow but essentially mature into a socially responsible ecosystem.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the most fascinating debates of the century and more so when our own lives and privacy is at stake.
(The writer is a communications and management professional with cross-sectoral experience)
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