Threaten to shut down online platforms to create leverage, says ex-Facebook investor

MANILA, Philippines – Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who has since gone on to become one of the most vocal critics of the platform, made loud and clear his solution to solve today’s disinformation and data privacy mess: shut them down.

Governments around the world today lack the leverage to hold tech giants such as Google and Facebook accountable, he asserted, and among the few ways that governments can get these companies to act with urgency matching the problem is with the threat of a shutdown.

Many times during his testimony at the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy, and Democracy in Ottawa, Canada on Tuesday, May 28, McNamee reiterated a shutdown may be one of the remaining recourses lending a government the gravitas to force online platforms to get their act together.

McNamee at the session repeatedly put forth the idea of Google and Facebook being insidious platforms that rely on invisible behavioral manipulation and surveillance to fuel their advertising business – a business model that he and two other witnesses believe should be heavily disincentivized through taxes or outright eliminated.

McNamee strengthened his argument with a dire, macabre image, comparing the giants’ collection of user data to voodoo dolls. Through data collection, the companies create a “high resolution avatar” of a user, their habits, personality and whatnot – a virtual doll that they can prick accordingly to get the effect that they desire, say, to click an ad.

It’s an analogy that paints these companies as having enormous, invisible control on its users. And it’s a level of power that McNamee asserts has gone unchecked long enough, with their tracks covered by altruistic goals of making the world a better place. 

Just as critical were two other co-witnesses: Shoshana Zuboff, the American author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and professor emerita at Harvard Business School; and Jim Balsillie, Canadian tech entrepreneur who was formerly co-CEO at Research In Motion, makers of the Blackberry phones.

Zuboff shed a very harsh light on the business models of these online platforms, which she described as surveillance capitalism – a capitalism fueled by the “secret capture of human experience,” and “human experience as a free source of raw material.”

It involves the unilateral claiming of human experience, behavior data, and the fabrication of predictive systems that can guarantee a behavior to their business customers – those who buy ads from them.

SOSHANA ZUBOFF. Screenshot from International Grand Committee livestream

SOSHANA ZUBOFF.

Screenshot from International Grand Committee livestream

Zuboff presented her ideas and advocated urgent action, saying the goal of these companies’ now is to “automate us," the users – swathes of individuals and communities behaving according to mystical algorithms and affecting not just everyday choices but governance and democracy itself. 

There is hope, Zuboff said, if only for the fact that surveillance capitalism has thrived in the absence of law; therefore, no one has really tried to reign it in just yet.

Balsillie offered a less extreme solution to a shutdown but emphasized urgency as well. Right now, he explained, tech is “co-equal” with government, that it is becoming the fourth estate or the press minus the accountability, and that tech could eventually render democracy obsolete.

Balsillie proposes several recommendations to combat these trends, calling upon governments to impose heftier or more creative taxation that will make the platforms less appealing, impose stricter regulations, protect whistleblowers, and create new institutions that will facilitate international coordination – a crucial part of the framework, he says.

And as for election ads? He stresses that personalized ads during elections simply must be banned.

Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa, also a witness, detailed the state-sponsored information operations in the Philippines, calling the local situation “a cautionary tale” – a “petri dish” demonstrating to the world the destructive effects of social media as a tool for propaganda.

MARIA RESSA. Screenshot from International Grand Committee livestream

MARIA RESSA.

Screenshot from International Grand Committee livestream

Ressa laid out how the machinery has systematically created a network reaching out to all social classes, taking advantage of websites and fake accounts to propagate lies which are pounded over and over until they becomes the truth, and using hate to silence those who oppose it – herself being a target, along with opposition figures Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Leila de Lima.

Charlie Angus, a Member of Parliament (MP) in Canada, offered solidarity to the Rappler CEO, and promised statements of support if there are any to be made.

Ressa, unlike McNamee and his shutdown proposals, took a less extreme stance saying, “we’re in search of a vaccine" that will hopefully rid the platform of lies, the virus that plagues the system, and that Facebook can still be a “tool of empowerment” that gives people “the ability to organize communities of action.”

The meeting is the second of its kind, following the November 2018 hearing in the UK, where internal Facebook documents revealed that Facebook may have shared data with third-party companies and that it had been warned of possible Russian meddling as early as 2014. 

Mark Zuckerberg was a no-show at that hearing. He and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg were invited to the Ottawa hearings – attended by governments from around a dozen countries – but were no-shows as well, for which they have been issued a summons by Canada:

Should the two step foot in Canada, they will have to appear before Parliament. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.

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