In one of his interview apologies Mark Zuckerberg lamented that “we had not taken a broad enough view of our responsibilities”. A master of understatement, you might think. Equally understated but of massive significance, he went on, “it was a huge mistake – it was my mistake”.
Well, the larger statement questions why such a wealthy and powerful organisation which plays such a pivotal role in our democracies can be subject to the rule of a single individual – “it was MY mistake”. It should not have been ‘his’ mistake to make alone.
We can, and do, vigorously explore issues of Facebook in a democracy – but we seem to be less concerned with democracy in Facebook – and yet the former (Facebook’s role in our democracies) would seem to be dependent on the latter. Until and unless corporations as socially sensitive as Facebook are subject to some form of democratic accountability we face a steep climb trying to assert the interests of the citizen. Currently it is Mark Zuckerberg who defines our interests – virtually unchallenged. Such corporate denizens assume the stature of feudal overlords.
The issue generalises to other information-based corporate megaliths, as we see – Google, Amazon, Apple and so on. In the case of Facebook, the issue deepens. Zuckerberg uses a moral argument to justify ‘his’ jealously guarded mission. That mission is to ‘connect’, and for him connecting people is a calling of biblical proportions. The moral force of ‘connecting’ people is taken to overwhelm all other considerations. And yet, ‘connecting’ and Facebook are merely a means of transaction. ‘Connecting’, itself, whilst a technical challenge of great proportion, is a moral and philosophical aspiration of adolescent reach – superficial. We might even be forgiven for thinking that the obsession to ‘connect’ speaks as much of personal need as social goal-setting – are we trapped in the psychological privations and projections of Mark Zuckerberg?!
The more authentic and serious issues of what gets transacted, how, by whom and for what purpose are no less subject to moral and ethical considerations as any transaction in politics and society. Facebook was highly successful in ‘connecting’ Russian cyber-spies to American citizens. These matters are being explored by scrutiny committees in the US Congress and the UK Parliament – we will see whose moral imperatives overwhelm whose, what happens when youthful utopian fantasies hit the fan of democratic politics.
For now we are left with the same conundrum that faced us when the FBI pressured Apple to break the code of an iPhone which belonged to an alleged terrorist. Apple claimed to be the guardian of our privacy – not the public institution of the FBI. We were asked to tie our sentiments and our privacy wellbeing to a global corporation and to forsake a key (albeit flawed) institution of our democracy. The result was by no means clear. Apple still has the ability to twang at our sentimental strings, notwithstanding the ruthless regime of commercial exploitation engineered by Steve Jobs – another corporate ‘overlord’.
As the corporate embrace of our citizen interests broadens, as the division between private, for-profit enterprise and public interest becomes blurred, so the issue of corporate democracy intensifies.