Zuck Ducks the Tough Questions


Money Quote Thursday March 22

The Facebook CEO finally spoke, but did he say anything new?

Of this, I am certain.

And….scene. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence by posting a longer than one page response on his Facebook page (that link is to COO Sheryl Sandberg’s post, so you have both), then granting several major media outlets 20 or so minutes of his time for a largely similar set of interviews. He started with a CNN interview where he apologized directly. Then he took to three publications for lengthier interviews. As you might expect, the media outlets each took a slightly different angle. Honestly, after reading them all, the whole thing felt too orchestrated and calorie free. Zuck did apologize, sort of, but he failed to do the one thing I think is most important: Admit the problem is bigger than his company’s ability to fix, ask for help, and commit to leading the charge on the larger issues at play here.

Oh, and I did try to watch the CNN interview online, but I’m not going to link to it here. Why? Because CNN made simply indefensible decision to cut his interview into minute-long soundbites, separated by as many forced ad breaks as humanly possible. That almost guarantees no one will actually view the entire interview. If ever there was an ironic proof of how Facebook is killing media outlets and damaging the concept of an informed electorate, well, there you have it.

The New York Times touted its interview thusly: A Q&A With Mark Zuckerberg About Data Privacy. I mean, why not just call it “A Conversation with A Guy About a Thing”?! Anyway, the news in this piece: Zuck agreed that the Cambridge story was a big deal, explained that he took so long to respond because he wanted to get the facts and the response right, he takes the #DeleteFacebook movement seriously (but it’s not very big), he’s got all manner of ideas (first mentioned in his FB post) to fix this, he’s worried about the 2018 midterms but FB is way better at handling these kinds of issues now. He also deflected when asked about whether his ad model is at the root of the problem (the thesis behind “Facebook Can’t Be Fixed”): He claimed his ad model creates more good than bad, because it makes Facebook free, and people need free stuff.

He did NOT address the negative externalities of his ad model. At all.

Recode’s Kara Swisher and Kurt Wagner posted a story after their time with Mark, and here’s the actual transcript of their conversation. “Mark Zuckerberg says he’s ‘open’ to testifying to Congress, fixes will cost ‘many millions’ and he ‘feels really bad’” has the trademark Swisher voice, but read the transcript for the best bits. Zuckerberg said he was uncomfortable “making decisions” about content and community standards, vaguely waving his hands around an idea that Facebook would invent at a later date to solve the problem. Oh, and sure, he’d be “open” to testifying to Congress, but only if he’s the right person to do it (and not, say, the cafeteria worker?). On this point I find a brand of Facebook evasiveness and intellectual dishonesty that just drives me f’ing crazy. Of COURSE Mark’s the right person to go to Congress and testify. HE’S THE CEO. C’mon. Hiding behind the qualifier of “well, Congress wants the best person for the information it is seeking” is just offensive, evasive rhetorical bullsh*t. It’s also utterly tone deaf: The buck stops at Zuckerberg’s desk, does it not? He’s the person who should face Congress, period.

Wired’s interview focused on a defense of why Facebook didn’t do more back in 2015 when it found out about the data breach (yes, I’m calling it that), but at least an acknowledgement that it was a mistake to not be more proactive. There’s a focus on data in this interview, and this is the issue I’m most interested in. At the end of the day, what Facebook announced was a higher wall to its walled garden. And that is not a good thing. I understand why that makes sense to casual observers given the circumstances, but it’s in fact the opposite of what I’ve been arguing for all along (I mean, all along, see the “Data Bill of Rights” from 11 years ago). More on that in another, non news-round up post later. Zuckerberg repeated his tone deaf talking point about testifying to Congress “if he’s the right person” (please), and even acknowledged that regulation is needed, but of course, only the right regulation. He did raise a nuanced and interesting question about the role of AI in self-regulation of content, but basically punted on whether AI will ever be up to that task (and who will regulate the damn AI, anyway?!). On “transparency,” here’s the money quote: “what tends to work well are transparency, which I think is an area where we need to do a lot better and are working on that and are going to have a number of big announcements this year, over the course of the year, about transparency around content.” Then he gets into food safety regulations and dust in chicken processing plants. Um…not a great metaphor.

Overall, Zuckerberg did a fair job of damage control and he did apologize and acknowledge regulation may be required, but as one might have expected, he focused on the solutions his company has promised to enact, and not the larger issues driving these problems at the core. Meanwhile, here are a few more stories from the past 24 hours that caught my eye:

A short overview of the fixes Zuckerberg laid out in his post.

Jessie Hempel points out that there actually wasn’t much news in the whole Cambridge story, instead, it took a whistle blower who put many of the pieces in place journalists (and astute readers) already knew (Alexis Madrigal makes a similar point here). “The unchecked power of companies that harvest our data is a great problem — but it’s hard to get angry about an idea that’s so nebulous.” Also good from Wired: The Irreversible Damage of Mark Zuckerberg’s Silence.

The always wonderful Paul Ford suggests we need a new Federal agency tasked with eradicating “digital pollution,” kind of like the EPA is responsible for environmental pollution. My response: If we set that up today, Trump would put the disgraced CEO of Equifax in charge of it.

This from Fred Krupp, who runs the Environmental Defense Fund. He’s been at it for 30 years. That’s either amazing or depressing. “Market-based approaches and corporate partnerships are standard practice today. Yet too many environmentalists still regard business as the enemy, and vice versa. That may finally be changing, because an emerging wave of environmental innovation is making these partnerships more productive, and their results more precisely measurable. Call it the Fourth Wave of environmental progress: Innovation that gives people new ways to solve environmental problems.”

This makes me so mad, I wanna spit. So Mexico is trying to deal with its obesity problem by regulating the sugar industrial complex, and we try to force them back to the trough? Capitalism at its worst. (For more, see my piece “We’re Sick and Getting Sicker. What’s Business Going to Do About It?”)

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