Zuckerberg versus the US congress

April 11, 2018 - Reading time: 4 minutes

I watched most of Mark Zuckerberg's testimony to the US congress while also thinking of the "great Facebook trial" mentioned in the Freedom in the Cloud talk from 2010. This isn't such a trial. In fact, it's the opposite. Almost without exception, congress critter after congress critter were lining up to praise Mr Zuckerberg and his site in glowing terms. They were falling over themselves to thank him for coming, for the wonderful blessings which his site had bestowed upon the world. They praised his intelligence, his business acumen and even his patriotism.

The Zuckerberg appearance was a display of America's most powerful engaging in mutual admiration. That congress people felt it necessary to ingratiate themselves before him says a lot about where power really resides and who has the goods on who. Zuckerberg is one of the top ten wealthiest people in the world - a multi-billionaire. It's possible that if he can steer Facebook out of it's current difficulties then he may go on to become the world's richest man and own a large fraction of the planet's resources. If current trends continue then at some time in the foreseeable future one man will have more wealth than half the world's population. Things really are looking that bad.

The predictions about what would happen in this inquiry are turning out to be accurate. There will be mild criticism of Facebook. Zuckerberg will make some superficial changes to privacy settings and terms of service documents. He might pay a small fine, relative to his profits. And then the business model will continue as if nothing had happened.

One of the great tricks of the inquiry process was to have four minute slots for questions. I'm not highly familiar with the internals of US politics but when I saw this I thought it was a stroke of genius. The questioners usually took 3.5 minutes to ask their question, leaving mere seconds for Zuckerberg to give only the briefest and most boilerplate answer, or just avoid answering altogether due to running out of time. This allowed him to dodge many of the more interesting questions, such as exactly how "shadow profiles" get created and whether it's possible to opt out of them (it isn't), or how Facebook tracks web site visits via "like" buttons or "tracking pixels".

Zuckerberg himself appeared slightly nervous at first, but mostly his demenor was confident and assertive. This wasn't someone being brought to heel for transgressions by the mythical "checks and balances". It was more like the master telling the slaves what the new Facebook terms of service will look like in the next year or two.

So other than theatre, is there anything which can be learned from this?

Zuckerberg says that not just political campaigns but anyone with a Facebook group and some significant number of followers will be required to submit formal identity documents to the company. This could result in another round of purges and an exodus from Facebook into either Twitter or the fediverse.

I had expected it, and may have even mentioned it in past blogs, but now there's no doubt. Zuckerberg made clear that he is going to use AI to moderate Facebook. At one point he said that there is no number of employees he could hire in order to review the content of the site. It can only be done with AI. This is a high risk strategy, but for a centralized silo system there aren't any other options which wouldn't break the business model. I expect that there's a large probability that AI based moderation will go badly. It might even be Facebook's ultimate undoing.

Really the only way to moderate communities is with human oversight by people who hopefully are in posession of some form of wisdom and who are embedded within those communities and understand their history. Only people have the knowledge and context to be able to evaluate social events within diverse cultures and situations. A single centralized system is going to struggle with this, no matter how advanced the AI algorithms are. Context collapse could be rampant. A lot of folks might get purged or miscategorized.

As the titans of the state and the oligarchy slug it out in a grudge match for supermacy over personal data, this potential looming catastrophe could be a huge opportunity for the fediverse to demonstrate that community moderation is superior to centralized AI moderation, and is the only truly scalable way of supporting meaningful social relations in the 21st century.


The blog of Bob Mottram, a Free Software hacker and maintainer of the Freedombone project.

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