The Late Conversion of a Digital Gangster

The scandals surrounding Facebook are rapidly stacking up. Recently, the company was discredited again by a live stream of the terrorist in Christchurch. He was able to share his atrocities unobstructedly on the internet for 17 minutes. Via Facebook Live, millions saw the murder of more than 50 innocent mosque-goers.

It is no surprise that the calls for regulation continue to increase. Meanwhile, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seems to have figured out that his management is wrong. Last Saturday, he published a kind of mea culpa in The Washington Post. The platform appears to be unable to prevent abuse, this sorcerer’s apprentice must have finally determined.

The responsibility weighs heavily: “Every day, we make decisions about what speech is harmful, what constitutes political advertising, and how to prevent sophisticated cyberattacks. These are important for keeping our community safe.”

In his article, he asks for new regulation for tech companies: “Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech, and frankly I agree.” This conversion is viewed with distrust by many. It would be a move forward chiefly meant to prevent more major interventions, such as a forced split-up of the company.

That skepticism is understandable because Zuckerberg’s words and deeds continually contradict each other. For years, he has been defending a looser handling of internet privacy. At the same time, I read that Zuckerberg has bought the houses surrounding his house in order to guarantee his family’s privacy. This anecdote nicely summarizes the company’s philosophy: It demands openness of the consumer and is completely closed itself. That is unsustainable.

A little over a month ago, the British Parliament issued a remarkable report about the big tech companies. It includes the following: “Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters.’” Parliament accused Zuckerberg of having contempt for democracy − he refused three times to appear before the House of Commons.

Those sentences about the “digital gangsters” are the result of 18 months of investigation into the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the company that used the data of millions of Facebook friends for, among other things, election campaigns in the United Kingdom and America. That extensive leak in the protection of data caused a wave of indignation.

The chairman of the investigative committee, Damian Collins, explained the proposals for better supervision: “We need a radical shift in the balance of power between the platforms and the people. The age of inadequate self-regulation must come to an end.”

It concerns not only the monopoly of companies like Google and Facebook, which collect and market data about our behavior. There is much more at stake: These companies are increasingly looking to change the consumer’s behavior. That starts with cultivating an addiction.

Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, looked back remorsefully on the methods of the company: “[W]e need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. It’s a social-validation feedback loop. It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Indeed, God only knows how these attempts at behavioral change work − also in our democracies. The totalitarian side of information technology, which announced itself as the liberation of the citizen, becomes clearer by the day. That calls for more control than is talked about now.

Behind the late conversion of Zuckerberg lurks the slow end of a worldview. There are a considerable number of people who see globalization − which is unthinkable without information technology − as a natural thing. The world is becoming more and more borderless. Also, the dividing line between the public and the private is slowly dissolving. That is the course of history.

But there is nothing natural about the removal of the world’s borders. The increasingly freer exchange of goods, capital and information is the result of conscious decisions. Everyone must understand by now that the liberal worldview is perishing: Globalization cannot live without regulation. That is why the mea culpa of this digital gangster is a hopeful sign.

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