Today, Facebook is under fire from all sidesgovernments, media, the common man
Facebook has been in all sorts of trouble in the last two years. Cambridge Analytica accessing data on 50 million Facebook users, Russian trolls using the social media network to influence the 2016 US Presidential elections, fake news, doubts about how much Facebook actually protects user data, what it really does with it... the list is long.
Some months ago, the Sri Lankan government requested the company to help rein in anti-Muslim propaganda. Facebook did not respond.
Finally, when anti-Muslim riots began in the country, the government shut down access to Facebook.
A few weeks ago, the company admitted that it had hired a right-wing PR firm to dig up dirt on its critics and link them to billionaire George Soros, a favourite anti-Semitic target. Closer home, our government has come down heavily on Facebook-owned WhatsApp for malicious fake news spread on the platform that has led to violence and deaths.
The latest in the series of debacles is the release last week of nearly 250 pages of the company’s internal e-mails and memos by a British parliamentary committee investigating Facebook’s role in misinformation and data privacy.
What is revealed does not show the company in very good light. For example, the company considered a proposal to upgrade the Facebook app for Android phones which would allow it to read and store call logs of users. This it planned to do sneakily without asking for users’ permission.
After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook has repeatedly said that it had closed off access to user data. But the mails made public show that the company continued to give access to data to a few companies that Mark Zuckerberg had personally “whitelisted", like Lyft, Airbnb and Netflix. No user consent seems to have been taken.
Conversely, when Facebook felt that there was a new competitor on the horizon, it cut off all access to its user data, like in the case of Vine, a video-sharing service that Twitter had launched. This effectively shut down Vine.
Now, it is a fact that all companies try to look after their interests. So, what Facebook is doing is hardly unique. Then, why do its tactics and strategies get people so riled up? For this, Zuckerberg has only himself to blame.
Right from the beginning, Zuckerberg positioned his company as more than just a business. He called it an “idealistic" venture that cares more about making the world a friendlier place than about the bottom line.
On 17 February last year, Zuckerberg unveiled a new mission for his company. “On our journey to connect the world, we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business," he wrote. “Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?"
“Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community," he wrote. “Facebook stands for bringing us closer together and building a global community… My hope is that more of us will commit our energy to building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together."
Messianic words dripping with love for humanity and all that. Yet, in a mail released by the UK committee, Zuckerberg writes: “That may be good for the world, but it’s not good for us."
If Zuckerberg had kept his mouth shut and just been the brilliant businessman that he is, the company’s image would not have been so tarnished.
But no, he had to go about making statements that would have been better suited to Nobel Peace Prize winners. But this is the CEO of a company, whose early employees reportedly used to end staff meetings by chanting “Domination!"
That sounds like a gathering at a James Bond villain’s den, and Zuckerberg hardly seems that angelic after all.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Microsoft was hated as the ‘Evil Empire’ because of its brutal monopolistic business practices. The world changed and Microsoft changed.
Today, suddenly, Facebook is under fire from all sides—governments, media, the common man. But it would not have been in this mess if Zuckerberg had not pretended to be so saintly. That turned out to be a bad business move.
Sandipan Deb is a former editor of Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.