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Zuckerberg’s mentor condemns Facebook’s business practices

Long-time Silicon Valley investor speaks out against surveillance capitalism and the lack of rules and regulations governing big tech’s behaviour

Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee has suggested former mentee Mark Zuckerberg’s attitude towards surveillance capitalism is a by-product of Silicon Valley’s toxic culture and business practices.

“Mark is one good night’s sleep away from realising that he can do more good by reforming the business model of Facebook and by getting out of surveillance capitalism,” McNamee told the crowd at McAfee’s MPower Cybersecurity Summit in Las Vegas.

“The problem is he does not believe that he’s doing anything wrong – he really believes that it is his job to connect the whole world in one giant network.”

Speaking on stage with Allison Cerra, McAfee’s senior vice-president and chief marketing officer, McNamee said he had spent the past three years speaking out against Facebook and big tech after noticing a number of issues in early 2016 around how these platforms were being used during the American presidential primaries.

“I spent three months pleading with my friends [Mark Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg] to do the right thing,” he said. “They were just pretending like the issues weren’t there.”

In response, McNamee authored Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe, which documents how the investor woke up to issues surrounding big tech.

“I’ve become a critic of the very industry to which I’ve devoted my entire life…because the culture of a handful of companies is completely off the rails. It’s undermining public health, democracy, privacy, the economy and competition”
Roger McNamee

“I’ve become a critic of the very industry to which I’ve devoted my entire life,” he said.

“Not because tech is bad, tech is great, but because the culture of a handful of companies – Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon – is completely off the rails. It’s undermining public health, democracy, privacy, the economy and competition.”

Data ‘voodoo’

McNamee particularly condemned the “surveillance capitalism” model of Facebook, Google and others.

“Every time you touch any electronic system, it’s not just the data that gets captured, it gets sold, it gets treated,” he said, referring to the way in which user data is turned into a “behavioural surplus” for the purpose of business-to-business prediction products as described by Shoshana Zuboff in her book The age of surveillance capitalism.

“They track you relentlessly online. They’re listening through things like Alexa and Google Assistant, and if they’re Microsoft or Google, they’re scanning your emails – they know everything. They’ve created a data voodoo doll about each and every one of us that is essentially us in digital form.”

During the International Grand Committee on Big Data, Privacy and Democracy in June 2019, McNamee told parliamentarians from around the world that corporate surveillance was not a prerequisite of providing consumers with services that they like.

“Do not, in your mind, allow any kind of connection between the services you like and the business model of surveillance capitalism. There is no inherent link there, none at all. This is something that has been created by these people because it is wildly more profitable,” he said.

However, speaking at MPower, he challenged the popular notion that “if you’re not a customer you’re a product”, saying “we’re not the product, we’re the fuel” that drives their profitability.

‘There are no rules’

McNamee added that far from Zuckerberg and other executives being “bad people”, these behaviours have been allowed to run rampant due to a lack of rules and regulations, not just in tech, but in the wider economy too.

“He’s just surrounded by a culture, not just in this hack, but in the whole economy. Think about it – the banking industry destroyed the global economy in 2008 and nobody got punished. We live in a time where there are no rules and smart people grab what they can grab. That’s all Mark’s doing.”

“We live in a time where there are no rules and smart people grab what they can grab. That’s all Mark’s doing”
Roger McNamee

Attorneys general in up to 40 US states have recently opened up antitrust investigations into Facebook amid growing public concern about the behaviour of large technology firms. This follows news that 50 attorneys general have signed onto an antitrust probe into Google and its potential to stifle market competition.

McNamee himself was supportive of antitrust action against the tech giants, detailing how numerous antitrust cases in the past have benefited not only users, but wider business sectors too.

“We have to have the change come from the outside, from the people who use the products and from the government,” he said.

Facebook has recently made a number of moves to show its commitment to users and their privacy, including Zuckerberg releasing a blog post about A privacy-focused vision for social networking.

However, according to McNamee, everything Facebook and Zuckerberg are doing “is basically just public relations – he doesn’t go to the core of the problem”.

In his closing remarks, McNamee stated his belief that the future is decentralised with greater degrees of distribution and control at the edge. “I think it’s all about empowering the user, about protecting the interests of the customer,” he said.

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