“The gallows doth wonderfully work to concentrate the mind,” observed Samuel Johnson. And while Mark Zuckerberg isn’t quite marching to the scaffold this week when he testifies before the House and Senate on Tuesday and Wednesday, the hearing provides him with a singular opportunity to convey his message to Congress and the country.
Facing criticism from both the left and the right, the overriding temptation for the founder and CEO of Facebook will be to placate and apologize. Under the glare of angry lights and gaze of hostile faces, he may want to demonstrate contrition by accepting — indeed inviting — all manner of punishment for Facebook’s alleged transgressions in protecting its users’ data.
But conciliation and capitulation aren’t likely to buy him any love — certainly not in the era of President Donald Trump, where pushback and stare-down are the preferred currencies of confrontation. I’m not suggesting he swagger into the hearing room and tweet insults during breaks, but rather command the hearing with principle and pride.
Mark Zuckerberg needs to Control-Alt-Delete this situation, and reboot it according to proper code — not computer code, but moral code. Here’s what that could sound like:
Fifteen years ago I started Facebook as a college student. I started Facebook not to make money or to meet girls, as some have speculated, nor at the time to achieve some lofty goal like making the world a better place. Instead I was obsessed with the emerging technologies of the Internet. The intricacies of software design fascinated me, and the challenge of creating something other students would need challenged and excited my imagination. While the ideas came out of my mind, the process of building, testing, iterating and growing Facebook into a platform that millions of people around the world would come to use took time, energy, and investment — lots of it.
These were supplied by those I gathered, engineers, designers, researchers, analysts — smart, creative people inventing totally new ways for people to communicate, congregate and connect. To pay people we could have charged the ‘users’ — i.e. the people who signed up for accounts on Facebook and used the platform which we built, continually improved and maintained. If we had gone that route, we certainly would not have been able to serve as many customers, who had increasingly gotten used to using Internet services like email and search and social networks for free.
But of course, these services are not free — no more free than are the groceries our employees buy, or the houses where our engineers live, or the clothes which our administrative workers wear, or the cars in which our maintenance staff drives to work. The people who built Facebook didn’t go to work out of charity. They rightly wanted to be paid for their time and their talent. The investors who loaned money to Facebook to get us started, and to scale and grow the company, didn’t do it out of charity. They rightly wanted to be paid back their money with a return — hopefully a higher return than they could have fetched by investing in something else.
The employees were paid and investors repaid not with fees charged to individuals using Facebook, but by fees paid by companies advertising goods and services to our users. Unlike private emails, Facebook is a social network — where people go to connect with other people. It’s possible to set up a profile on Facebook without using your name and information about who you are, what you do, where you live, and what interests you, but not only would that limit the ability of Facebook to hold users accountable — and vice versa — it would kind of defeat the main purpose of why most people go on a social network in the first place.
Together, we created a technology-supported platform that provided people with value — so much value in fact, that millions and millions of people took advantage of the Facebook community to communicate, socialize and do business. So vastly was this platform adopted and utilized, that some now have come to regard it as a ‘public good’ — or a public utility — so widely beneficial to so many, that it should be regulated by government.
This is a view grounded in ethics, and economics. Ethically the argument is that what is needed, should be provided. Does one person’s need lay a claim on another person’s ability or duty to provide?
Economically the argument for government regulation of Facebook is that we are a monopoly. Does Facebook have exclusive control or supply of social media, of social networking?
The answer to both questions is obviously and emphatically: ‘No.’
Facebook is not a monopoly — but with government’s help, we certainly could be. As the largest, and even at 15-years-old, oldest player in the social media sector, we can easily absorb the cost and bear the burden of any regulation you in Congress would care to impose. Could Facebook bear that cost? Sure. Could I, Mark Zuckerberg, sitting before you as CEO of the largest social networking company in the world — bear that cost? Absolutely.
But could I, Mark Zuckerberg, the college student — or someone like me — sitting in a dorm, thinking of ways to challenge dominant technologies with new, competitive goods and services — bear that cost? The answer is obviously and emphatically, ‘No.’
More regulation will not hurt me. It will not hurt the big guys — and this is true in any field, whether it’s banking of financial services or insurance. More regulation will keep the little guys, not just from ever challenging existing, more established companies — it will keep them from even stepping on the field.
As a big company, we’re not frightened by the prospect of Big Brother looking over our shoulder. But the American people should be. And to the extent that Facebook has come to be regarded as a public good — as something to take for granted, I think it’s healthy for people to ask themselves, ‘What does this cost? Who pays the cost? And how?.’” “I think it’s a healthy thing for people to think twice — or even think once — or maybe just think — about how much information they want to provide to anyone, and under what terms. It’s healthy to understand the difference between information provided privately, and information provided publicly, and to expect those who receive the information to respect that difference.
Will having government regulation — which by its nature demands government access data shared privately with Facebook by its users — make private data more secure? The answer to that is equally and obviously, ‘No.’
These past few weeks many opinions have been voiced by various journalists and television commentators on Facebook’s mistakes. These opinions are aired by media outlets funded by advertisers paying to access people who spend time watching television or listening to radio. Much like advertisers pay to access people who spend time on social media, like Facebook.
The media attacks have portrayed me and my company as arrogant, reckless villains with no regard for the welfare of others. Is that true?
In business I’ve earned a reputation for fair dealing, and in philanthropy I’ve committed to giving away not a percentage, but the overwhelming majority of all the wealth I have — and will earn, to causes of my own choosing. Indeed, one of the greatest satisfactions of the enormous financial success I have achieved is the capacity and freedom to benefit others in areas ranging from basic shelter to advanced science.
But while charges of reckless selfishness are easily deflected, the charge of arrogance has given me pause. If arrogance means an over-assumption of importance — or an exaggeration of one’s role in the world — then, perhaps I have something to learn. In presuming for Facebook the role of solving global challenges, of arbiting the truth, of building community, as I outlined in my 6,000 word “manifesto” last year, perhaps I overstepped what any one company can — or frankly should — do.
Last year I wrote that ‘history is the story of how we’ve learned to come together in ever greater numbers, from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.’ And in arrogance, I saw myself and Facebook as a central player in building those collective organizations, with power to grant as we saw fit.
The experience of the past few months has afforded me a different perspective of history — predicated not on progress in coming together, but progress in protecting the individual. It’s a view of civilization not as progress toward community, but as progress towards privacy. Civilization as ‘the process of setting man free from men.
The antidote to arrogance is paradoxically humility and pride. Humility in owning one’s mistakes. Pride in owning one’s accomplishments. So today, even as at Facebook we acknowledge our mistakes and reevaluate our limitations, I could not be more proud of Facebook, of its technological accomplishments, of its extraordinary profitable success, which it has earned by providing so many with so much value. Thank you.
Jennifer Grossman is the CEO of The Atlas Society and is a former speechwriter for George H.W. Bush.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.