This week, Mark Zuckerberg came calling to Dublin. He met politicians, missed the main privacy regulator and found time to take a pop at Apple.
What did he achieve? What are Facebook’s main political issues in Ireland and Europe? And is this a sign of things to come?
Zuckerberg is on a policy roadshow at the moment, trying get in front of important future regulation.
“Lawmakers often tell me we have too much power over speech and, frankly, I agree,” he wrote in the ‘Sunday Independent’ and ‘Washington Post’ last week. “I’ve come to believe that we shouldn’t make so many important decisions about speech on our own.”
He doesn’t need to remind us of the case studies. From Cambridge Analytica to Russian interference in elections and algorithms that sometimes exacerbate tensions between factions or ethnic groups, Facebook has proven to be an accelerator for some of the darker impulses we have.
One of the more interesting elements about Zuckerberg’s engagement in Dublin was to listen to him explaining his side of these issues. He did this mainly through dialogue with a number of TDs, who spent an hour talking through some of the issues.
He admitted to TDs, for example, that some of what Facebook had done didn’t look good, even while continuing to defend it.
The most acute example was an administrative stroke that Facebook pulled to reclassify some 1.5 billion users away from Ireland’s regulatory responsibility.
It did so on the eve of GDPR’s introduction. Critics of the company say that this was a cynical exercise, a deliberate attempt to avoid the higher data protection standards that GDPR brings.
Zuckerberg admitted in Dublin that the optics of this weren’t good, even more so because part of his roadshow at present is to argue for GDPR-like standards in the rest of the world.
But he didn’t resile from it. The company, he said, executed this move for technical reasons as much as for business ones.
Similarly, on the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Zuckerberg said that he doesn’t think Facebook was to blame for much. So when asked, he said that he wouldn’t be dropping the company’s appeal to the British privacy regulator’s £500,000 (€584,000) fine on the matter.
From a business and regulatory perspective, one of the most interesting viewpoints he holds is on competition and antitrust issues. Zuckerberg appears not to see any real threat coming from regulators, either in Europe or the US, around ownership of the three biggest online communication platforms (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp) outside email.
This means that he doesn’t, for example, see significant regulatory hurdles in bringing the three closer for messaging purposes.
Instead, he simply says that the issue is confined to making the apps better and more useful.
Is he right? Most regulatory sources I’ve spoken to are sceptical.
It may turn out that the approach he took on this in Dublin is more reminiscent of the narrow product-focus mentality that has repeatedly misinformed Facebook on public and political reaction in the past. (This is one reason why Facebook hired Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat party leader, who accompanied him to Dublin.)
Zuckerberg was meeting parliamentary TDs Eamon Ryan, James Lawless and Hildegarde Naughton in Dublin as part of an outreach exercise with an international ‘Grand Committee’, made up of politicians from the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Argentina.
The Facebook boss also toured the company’s facilities in Dublin, which currently employs over 4,000 people and is set to add another 1,000 this year.
Zuckerberg also met journalists. but restricted his answers to pre-prepared remarks.
However, he was willing to put to bed one accusation frequently levelled at him. Asked whether Facebook or Instagram records voice conversations through smartphones to inform targeted ads, he said: “Absolutely not”.
However, he again warned about Apple’s “competing vision” for the internet, making a thinly-veiled reference to the iPhone company when referring to data “stored” in countries like China.
“GDPR is as important for what it doesn’t do, which is require companies to localise data and store systems data in a given country,” he said, referring to Apple’s compromise with Chinese authorities, where it stores data in servers located in that country. Facebook and Google are not allowed to operate in China.
“We can take this for granted in a country like Ireland or in the US where there’s a strong rule of law and respect for human rights. But in a lot of the places around the world, those aren’t a given. What we see is that there are some competing visions for how the internet goes and what the future of that will be. We see a lot of pressure in a number of countries localising data in a way that could put people’s data more accessible to governments and in harm’s way.”
This isn’t new – Facebook and Apple have been sparring publicly at CEO level for at least two years.
But it was notable that Zuckerberg chose these remarks for public consumption to a media audience in Ireland, with its longstanding links to Apple.
Some commentators have already drawn cynical conclusions as to Zuckerberg’s intent.
Partly because of the GDPR and its increased staffing levels around moderation and detection of harmful content (a controversial activity in itself), it now has a well-equipped regulatory team.
Thus, the cynics say, it will be much more able to deal with new legal requirements where smaller teams will not. It’s an exercise in pulling up the drawbridge and entrenching its advantage, the sceptics conclude.
Whatever the truth of that theory, there is no doubt that this is about getting in front of regulation.
He will be well aware of high-profile voices such as Democratic Party US presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren who is calling for the breakup of companies like Facebook and Google and Amazon because of their size and increasingly undeniable utility (Facebook is now the place you go to look someone’s contact details up, rather than a phone book or Google).
Zuckerberg’s new proposal is for the countries of the world to pass stronger, more comprehensive laws. He also wants the creation of “third-party bodies” to decide exactly what ‘harmful content’ is and then to apply those standards across the big online platforms.
Will Ireland’s Digital Safety Commissioner meet this standard? Not quite.
That role is designed as a sort of ombudsman for people who can’t get satisfaction from their dealings with the big social networks, say in the instance of a photo or a post that they find offensive, harassing or that is private.
While it will have the power to fine social networks, this may not be very much. Loosely compared to the Australian eSafety Commissioner (by Minister Richard Bruton, who is introducing the legislation for the position), it is likely to have just a very small staff and the power to level a maximum fine in the millions of euro.
By contrast, Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon now has a staff of 130 and can fine Facebook (or Google, which runs YouTube) billions.
The problem for Ireland – and most other governments, including supra-national bodies such as the European Commission – is that we struggle ourselves with desiring where the boundaries should be between free speech, privacy and safety.
In truth, there is only one major country in the world that truly dictates terms to the online platforms: China, with its bans on Facebook and Google and restriction on Apple.
Even the most ardent critic of Facebook in Ireland or Europe would probably shrink from such an extreme method of control.
Stepping back, it’s possible to see the fine balance that Zuckerberg is trying to strike.
It’s unrealistic to expect a chief executive – especially a co-founder – to act against the interests of his own company, either in financial or functionality terms.
At the same time, Zuckerberg now knows that the company he runs is getting closer to becoming a utility with every year that passes. (In Ireland alone, three million people use Facebook, with about the same using either Instagram or WhatsApp or both.)
Whether he calls it a platform or a publisher, Facebook now has more power than Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. How it uses that power is a matter of public interest and concern.
Zuckerberg doesn’t want to be perceived as a bad guy. He obviously desires his products to be enablers.
And while few ever openly say it, it’s fair to remind ourselves that Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp) are all very popular services. Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that they’re loved services, even if some rue their existence.
As much trouble as they’re attributed to have caused, a great number of people believe that the apps have substantially added to their lives.
There’s no question of Zuckerberg’s apps being assembled by committee. Zuckerberg is still calling the shots on what his services do now and will do in the future. But he knows that people like Helen Dixon, Margrethe Vestager and Christina Warren are all now important figures in what his company may or may not be able to do in future.
This probably isn’t the last we’ll see of Mark Zuckerberg in Ireland this year.
According to all involved, it’s now very possible that he’ll return for a full appearance before TDs – and possibly other members of the cross-parliamentary ‘Grand Committee’ – in Dublin in November.
We can certainly expect to see more from Zuckerberg in Ireland and Europe in future.