Dec 2, 2018 - Technology

Facebook vs. democracy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook's leaders have accumulated dynastic wealth from mining the personal information of a billion Facebook users and then selling those users to the highest bidder — even when that bidder is actively seeking to undermine democracy.

The backdrop: In the Philippines, the government uses Facebook to suppress dissent. In the U.K., Cambridge Analytica used Facebook data in violation of campaign-finance laws to affect the outcome of the Brexit vote. And in the U.S., of course, Russia's Internet Research Agency ran more than 3,500 pro-Trump Facebook ads during the 2016 election.

Driving the news: This week Facebook was the focus of an almost unprecedented international hearing in the U.K., with parliamentarians from nine different countries participating (the last similar hearing took place in 1933).

  • Neither COO Sheryl Sandberg nor CEO Mark Zuckerberg attended. An empty chair with Mark Zuckerberg's name in front of it faced democratically elected representatives of Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia, Singapore and the U.K. — countries representing a combined population significantly greater than that of the U.S.

Sandberg, who was born in 1969, grew up in a G7-dominated world where the richest nations — U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada, Italy, Japan and France — were bastions of liberal democracy and human rights.

  • But when faced with criticism from George Soros, who has spent billions of dollars trying to strengthen civil society, she seemingly barely understood what he was saying. Instead, her response was based in finance: She asked her staff whether he was shorting Facebook stock.

The bottom line: Facebook, one of the biggest capitalist success stories of 21st century America, has significantly more information about its billions of users than some secret police. It also has no real democratic accountability.

P.S. ... Google, too, has found its desire for profits to be in direct conflict with the safety and privacy of its users. A bombshell report from The Intercept's Ryan Gallagher gives details on Project Dragonfly — a Chinese search engine, designed by Google, that would censor information about human rights and share with the Chinese government the cellphone number and location of anybody researching such topics. The project is reportedly strongly backed by Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

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