Right now, in some tasteful open plan office in California, Mark Zuckerberg’s ‘team’ is hard at work. Or at least they should be, because they have a lot to do. When he wasn’t trying to explain the 101 basics of how the internet actually works, Zuck was telling senators that his team would look into the details, and would be in touch.
The reason he was there at all, subjecting himself to five gruelling hours of intensive and sometimes wildly misdirected questioning, was to reassure three groups of people: Facebook users, who need to know Zuck cares about privacy. Investors, who need to know the company is dealing with the crisis. And finally the politicians themselves, who are wondering if more rules and laws are needed to tame the giant.
The tone of his response to the Senate Committee was contrition. We’re sorry, we know we’ve messed up. We didn’t realise that people might actually use our platform to do bad things! But we’ve learned the lesson, he said, like a chastised teen slinking out of a detention. He promised, among other things, to lead a more responsible company: to hire more moderators to police the site better; to investigate Cambridge Analytica and other companies; to invest in more artificial intelligence to spot people trying to manipulate the site. The old company motto was ‘move fast and break things’. This was more ‘move a bit slower, and try to fix some of the things we’ve broken’.
None of the big, underlying problems were resolved of course. Should Facebook be regulated like a media platform, given that it makes money from selling ads alongside content and increasingly has an editorial role? Is there an alternative to its basic business model of personal data in exchange for free services? These questions were left answered. Perhaps because they’re unanswerable.
Nevertheless, investors were reassured. Facebook share price went up 4.5 per cent, thereby making Zuck himself almost 3 billion dollars richer. Citizens I expect will wait and see. And as for the politicians? It’s pretty clear that Zuck doesn’t want too many more rules or laws. The underlying message was that the company can self-regulate.
Which brings me back to Zuck’s poor ‘team’. The senators will want answers to the nitty gritty issues that Zuck palmed off during the session itself: how exactly can you increase protection for kids? How can you make sure the platform isn’t politically biased? How can you ensure there aren’t rapacious companies selling dodgy wares to vulnerable people? Can you, as one senator proposed, open up your algorithms for inspection by civil liberties groups (‘an interesting idea’ said Zuck, as if he’d never thought of it before). How they answer these questions might determine whether or not there is more regulation of the tech giants in the motherland. Over to you, team.
Jamie Bartlett is the author of The People Vs Tech, out on 19 April