Strewth! Facebook puts its foot in it: Zuckerberg makes huge strategic error
- Aggression against Australia unites much of the world against social media giant
- Regulators and legislators will now fashion axes, knives, stilettos and cleavers
- It'll take time but Facebook will be filleted
So, the ageing and overweening wunderkind Mark Zuckerberg has made his bed and now he'll have to lie in it. Facebook's (for which read Zuckerberg's) bullying decision to prevent the posting and sharing of news in Australia and the accompanying "unfortunately inadvertent" blocking of Australian government and other websites relating to emergency services such as health, police and fire webpages showed that Facebook is a global monopoly power quite willing to use its vast resources to subvert and nullify laws enacted by a freely elected democratic government.
If Zuckerberg thought the Australian government and people would roll over and accede to his demands he has made a big mistake and worldwide condemnation of his high-handed actions shows that Facebook is now in bigger trouble than it has ever been in before.
It is now inevitable that Facebook will be subject to increased and more intense scrutiny, investigation and regulation at national and international level and, in due course, it's wings will be clipped. Zuckerberg was first out of the trap with his pre-emptive action in Australia but now Facebook will face years of attrition as it will be forced to fight successive rearguard actions on many fronts with governments and regulators the world over as they seek to bring the huge company to heel. Zuckerberg thinks he can simply ignore or skirt around laws and regulations he doesn't like. He is deluded if he believes he will be allowed to do so in future.
Facebook has signally failed to put into practice the many promises made to lawmakers and regulators that the company would work in collaboration with them to follow an agreed course to the control and policing of social network platforms. While Zuckerberg was mouthing his platitudes on Capitol Hill, Facebook apparatchiks were simultaneously telling regulators its Internet technology is far too complex and difficult for them and legislators to understand. Meanwhile it spent billions of dollars lobbying and advertising against any meaningful oversight.
It all started with Google
TelecomTV has already, in detail, covered the causes that preceded and precipitated Facebook's attempt to browbeat the Australian government and we won't re-rehearse it here. Instead let's take a look at how social media giants manoeuvred themselves into positions of such power that they now feel able directly to subvert and negate the actions of liberal democratic states. Probably the best analysis comes from Professor Shoshana Zuboff of Harvard University in her book "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism".
She traces the root of today's problems to the emergence of Google and the apparently altruistic "don't be evil" determination of its founders, messrs. Brin and Page, to "organise all human knowledge". Back in the mid-1990s, as they set the first web crawlers and spiders to work to find, record, process, analyse and archive the sum of all that we know, or have ever known as a species, a few critics began to point out that, if successful in its goal, Google would become immensely and perhaps even potentially dangerously powerful because it alone would control access to that knowledge. They cautioned that nascent social media platforms should be closely regulated and policed from the outset, but they were not.
Initially Facebook's purpose was to provide connections for everyone to distribute personal content on the Internet. However, as more and more people began to use its services and apps the company quickly realised that it could collect enormous amounts of data about those users from those users, (who freely gave away personal information in exchange for what was then seen as a benign and fun service), and process and bundle that data for sale to advertisers.
That's what happened and Facebook and its ilk have become immensely rich and powerful as a direct result. And now, as we have just seen demonstrated, Facebook is so strong and sure of itself that it can try, and often succeed, in shaping, directing and even controlling access to news and information as well as providing advertisers with the ability to micro-target individuals and influence and sell to them continually and endlessly.
In an earlier volume "In the Age of the Smart Machine" which came out in 1988, Professor Zuboff used what she saw happening when she worked at a pharmaceutical company. Computer tools and apps designed for reasons of boosting business efficiency via better communications within a corporation were initially welcomed by staff as a novel and even fun way to communicate socially as well as for purely business purposes.
However, disillusion set in when it became apparent that the tools were designed purely for commercial advantage and with the data and personal information that staff had so freely bandied about on email systems were being analysed and refined the better to benefit the corporation and control the very personnel who had provided the information in the first place.
In the third decade of the so-called "Digital Century" that early social control has been magnified and extended by social media companies via ever-more sophisticated algorithms to the extent that they are now not only capable of predicting and promoting demand but also of controlling it worldwide - and thumbing their noses at the regulators as they do it.
Time to call time on unregulated public networks. Alternatives needed.
Shoshana Zuboff concludes "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism" by calling on governments, legislators, consumers, indeed everyone, to wake up to and understand that what has happened and is happening as they lose control of private data. Unless the established status quo is challenged, regulated and controlled by greater society, corporations such as Facebook will only get bigger, stronger and ever more likely, as de facto supra-national states in their own right, to threaten elected governments that have the temerity to challenge their power and hegemony. Companies such as Facebook should no longer be permitted to be central to any nation's critical communications infrastructure. Full stop.
Meanwhile, condemnation of Facebook's attack on Australia's access to news and information is reverberating around the world. In the UK, Julian Knight, MP, the chair of parliament's Digital, Digital, Culture, media and Sport Committee called Facebook's action "One of the most idiotic but also deeply disturbing corporate moves of our lifetimes. Australia's democratically elected government is just that, democratically elected and has the right to make laws and pass legislation… it's really disrespecting democracy to act in this fashion."
Henry Walker, the chair of Britain's News Media Association commented that Facebook's decision, at the height of the global pandemic "is a classic example of a monopoly power being the school yard bully, trying to protect its dominant position with scant regard for the citizens and customers it supposedly serves. Facebook's actions in Australia demonstrate precisely why we need jurisdictions across the globe to coordinate robust regulation."
In the US, David Cicilline, chair of the Houses Antitrust Committee said Facebook's actions were "not compatible with democracy" and added, "threatening to bring an entire country to its knees to agree to Facebook's terms is the ultimate admission of monopoly." Across the northern border Canada's Heritage Minister, Steve Guilbeault called Facebook "irresponsible" and added that the company's actions "will not deter us from moving ahead with our own legislation."
In the EU, Dietmar Woolf, head of the BDZV (the news publishers association) spoke for Germany and many other member states in observing " It is high time the governments of the world limit the market power of the gatekeeper platforms."
Meanwhile, of Nick Clegg, the man who for the five years between 2010 and 2015 was the UK's deputy prime-minister, little has been heard. Cheered to the rafters in parliament when he lambasted Facebook for avoiding paying enough tax in Britain he later proved himself to be a hypocrite and opportunist when he moved to California to become head apologist for Facebook as head of global affairs and communications. Calls for his resignation are growing, but he won't go. After all, he's very well paid to be His Master's Voice and gained plenty of experience when he played second-fiddle poodle in David Cameron's British Circus.
And what of Google, that until recently had taken much the same aggressive line as Facebook? Well having a bit more appreciation of the way the wind is blowing the "Don't be Evil"one changed tack, withdrew its threats and in doing a deal with Australian publishers has come out of the imbroglio if not exactly exuding the scent of roses then at least not stinking of droppings deposited by Puli, Zuckerberg's pooch. That particular stench is wafting around the globe straight from the cleated sole of one of Mark's very own "Wolf Grey" sneakers. He's going to have to pay more attention to where he's putting his feet.
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