Facebook has hit a wall – the people running the company don’t know it yet







The situation in which the hi-tech giants of the online world find themselves still baffles me.

Careful lawyers and executives from Facebook, Google and Twitter gave lengthy evidence to the US Congress yesterday without once appearing to appreciate the scale of the trouble they’re in. If they believe that their scale, profits and lobbying power is going to insulate them from a patchwork of inconsistent regulation all over the globe, they are making a mistake.

Russian interference and faked news are serious issues, to be sure. But they make only a fragment of the questions raised by social networks. Others go wider and deeper. I’ve been writing a good deal about Facebook recently and this post is a short summary of those arguments, plus links.

  1. The acute phase of Facebook’s problems with the public interest began with a row in Norway over an iconic photo from the Vietnam war. The ruckus revealed, I thought, a general fear of ideas inside Facebook. Something of an understatement as it turned out.
  2. Executives started to explain themselves – a little. But the explanations were too tentative and begged more questions. The business of squaring obligations to the public interest (and who was ever going to agree what those are?) with the company’s commercial strategy was painful.
  3. This spring, Facebook people were out on the conference circuit attempting to win friends and influence people in the media and politics. At the same moment, their engineer colleagues were celebrating easier ways to manipulate pictures of yourself on your Facebook page. Left hand, right hand.
  4. In the context of a general election in the UK, I was urging Facebook to think larger and wider about the broad issue of trust in a wired society.
  5. Facebook’s founder and boss Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t seemed to have grasped that the ‘permissionless’ innovation which is so exciting to the inventors in Silicon Valley has a downside. Reactive apology isn’t enough.
  6. Last month, I argued that ideas for regulating the hi-tech firms ought to start with transparency. Martin Moore tweeted that this is now almost inevitable, a question not of if but of when. I hope that my next post will look in more detail at how policymakers and legislators should require greater openess.

Jay Rosen observed the other day that Facebook has found no way to talk about its power. That’s one way to put it. I’d say that Facebook simply hasn’t faced how to reconcile how it makes money with the public interest. The session in Congress yesterday only underlined that. A defensive crouch is not the right posture for thinking.


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