Mr. Zuckerberg goes to DC

Facebook (and to a large extent big tech) will find itself under the microscope this week, thanks to Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in front of the U.S. legislators. Whether it is Facebook or Amazon or Google, the world at large sees technology companies out of sync with reality, and somewhat shying away from their responsibilities. For past decade, my argument is that we need to stop thinking about technology as a solution, but also think of the problems it causes. We need to think of people as humans, not data points to create viral loops, advertising-targeting platforms and points for behavioral experimentation. Knowingly or unknowingly, we have ended up at a point which we should fear the most: no, not the regulation, but instead being regulated by legislators, who lack a deeper understanding of technology and its impact.

By failing to self-regulate and being naively optimistic, Facebook has exposed themselves and perhaps, rest of the technology industry to the risk that comes with populist and misinformed legislators. Our political firmament is always waxing eloquent about the good old day, a past which is never coming back. Never do we think about the possibilities, and the future. Technology demands proactive regulation, not driven by fear and headlines, but with controls that put citizen rights at the heart of it all.

Just as our technology heroes have failed us by not taking the time to think about the human impact, our legislators are going to fail us with coming up with ill-thought, reactionary policies, that perhaps will get the headlines, but won’t help us deal with the enmeshing of digital and physical worlds.

Today’s spectacle reminds me of 1998 when (a very young) Bill Gates went to Washington D.C. and faced the legislators. (You can watch the video on CSPAN. ) Eventually, Microsoft would square off with the US Government, and be declared monopolistic and anti-competitive. Facebook is a long way from there, but Microsoft’s long battle with the courts was a big distraction for the company, and it gave a leg up to some of its rivals.

Microsoft sure did act like a monopolist, wanting to change the web to its will. It tried to use its dominance to define who the computing would evolve. The normals didn’t care about the Microsoft vs. Netscape battle and were happy to use the “E” as a way to get on the Internet.

The downside of the tussle with the government was that it brought up thinking influenced by lawyers. That perhaps made the company a little cautious. It didn’t help that it made mistakes with IE and even then it was a long time before the normals actually cared. But those in the real world didn’t much care for a long time..

Will history repeat itself? Who knows! But as I have maintained over past few weeks — the rage against Facebook is played out in the media and nothing is likely to change. The traditional definition of a monopoly doesn’t apply to the company to merit an anti-trust case. Despite a $100 billion decline in market capitalization, investors love the company and its margins. Advertisers are happy with what Facebook brings to the table and find it more useful compared to the more traditional advertising channels.  The citizens of the web don’t seem to care or don’t know better — either way, it Facebook is a great punchline to be shared on Facebook.

Even the employees have shrugged off the recent events. Unlike Uber, where the need for change came from the middle management, Facebook is remarkably resilient regarding its team spirit — and there is a near cult-like devotion to Zuckerberg.

At best we can hope for some change, maybe a little more oversight in its acquisitions, and perhaps more accountability in the media. Perhaps people in media will not give them an easy pass. The dominance of Facebook’s power means we need to be keeping a close watch on them. Let’s assume, like most near monopolies; they are doing what they are doing for their own good, not the good of the world at large.

Recommended Reads:

Amidst this cacophony of alerts, hot takes and essentially page view is driven coverage, if you are looking to read some thoughtful, if contrarian points of view, then let me share some articles that I found were different and informative.

  1. 12 things everyone should know about technology.
  2. The network effects of Facebook: why most don’t understand Facebook
  3. Is Facebook in more trouble than you think? ()
  4. Silicon Valley falls to earth.
  5. How Facebook helps shady advertisers pollute the Internet.
  6. How Facebook lost control of its messaging.

A letter from Om

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