Wednesday, April 11, 2018

zuckerberg hearings are all sound and fury...but not because of zuck

Yesterday I posted this on FB...

I suspect that I will be in the minority on this, but I find Zuckerberg's testimony useful and insightful. I do not find him evasive or combative, although that cannot be said for some of the legislators on either the Left or the Right. Those asking the questions are, at times, out of their element about technology they cannot comprehend. At the same time, Zuck admits there is a need for some regulation, and, he highlights the personal responsibility of those who use FB. If you don't want something shared, don't post it! If you don't want FB to send you ads, don't sign-on through FB. This is a brave new world, to be sure, but personal responsibility still matters.

CNN, the Guardian and other news organizations later observed that the Senate hearing was not designed for deep information. Each Senator had only four minutes to ask questions. This was just long enough to grandstand as they puffed themselves up trying to look important, or expose their staggering ignorance of the social media industry they were trying to critique. This looked like a mostly cynical side show designed by crass operatives to show constituents back home - who don't pay a lot of attention any how - how tough Washington politicians can be to a bad, little, rich boy from Silicon Valley.

For his part, the CEO of Facebook appeared focused, polite, informative, appropriately contrite, and cooperative if a bit "robotic" as some new agencies reported. Let's recall, however, that Zuck is a high-powered tech coder whose long suit is not public relations. He is a brilliant, thirty-three year old computer entrepreneur forging new ways of sharing information, making money, and communicating across international bouandaries. Does he have blind spots? Of course - who doesn't? Has he been naive? Beyond a shadow of doubt. Has Facebook been used by inventive shadow forces hellbent on making money and/or influencing politics all over the world? Unquestionably. Does FB have a responsibility to fix the flaws it knows about and help safeguard against future privacy breeches. Most certainly. Are regulations re: transparency in order? Probably. Do our legislators know what type of new laws will work? Probably not. Is Zuckerberg's unitary control of the Facebook management team too narrow, leading to problems that might have been anticipated by having more players at the table? I think so but I am not in control of their business model. Did FB violate the consent decree with the FTC? Possibly.  
Are there other concerns I haven't considered? Assuredly.

These hearings look like political Kabuki theater to me. Both Democrats and Republicans are woefully ignorant of the tech world they are criticizing. This is not necessarily their fault. And far be it from me to trash talk older folk who aren't up on the latest tech innovations. I am not a Luddite, but neither am a whiz kid. So why didn't these legislators get their younger staff members to give them tutorials - and scripts - to traverse a world they do not comprehend? Hubris, plain and simple. Today's hearing in the House of Representatives shows no greater wisdom or depth. Just more carping, fumbling, posturing, and confusing the way Facebook actually works with vague, dystopian fears from their constituents.

Facebook is an easy straw man for politicians. The political commentary from most of the players is "all sound and fury signifying nothing." Even when well-intentioned, these hearings merely create the illusion of significance without any gravitas or consequence. Still, I don't see the hearings as a witch hunt. Nor do I see Zuckerberg playing a shell game. Rather, I believe the pols are responding to a growing social anxiety around the consequences of living on-line. Zuck is an easy target for elected officials to use as they try to take a stand against a 
variety of still undefined fears. Instead of holding these hearings, however, we would be better served watching "Black Mirror" on Netflix or "Electric Dreams" on Amazon. Then, at least, we would know what some of the real issues are in the era of the Internet.

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