Author and Facebook Investor Dissects Cyber Privacy
April 01, 2019
When he first met with Mark Zuckerberg in 2006, Roger McNamee, the author of Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, had already been a Silicon Valley investor/insider for 24 years. Facebook was two years old with $9 million in revenues the previous year, McNamee told an Isenberg audience on March 5. The talk was a semester highlight in the Department of Management’s Ethics Speaker’s Series, coordinated by Senior Law Lecturer Jennifer Merton. After pondering the start-up’s prospects, McNamee told Zuckerberg: “Microsoft and Yahoo will offer you $1B for your business.” Following a pregnant pause, the 22-year-old entrepreneur responded, “I won’t sell. I want to exercise my vision.”
That vision, noted McNamee, had emerged from two foundational ideas—the insistence on authentic user identities and privacy controls that allowed those users to control who could see them and who could post on their pages. Many Silicon Valley successes, McNamee said, have a defining idea, but “nobody has two ideas at the same time.” That was a game changer.
“For three years I became one of Mark’s many mentors,” McNamee continued. “We had a tight, uniformly great relationship.” He invested in Facebook in 2007 and was the matchmaker who brought Sheryl Sandberg into the Facebook fold. By 2009, McNamee, on the verge of retirement, stepped back from Facebook. But seven years later, he revisited the business, after discovering its role in numerous improprieties.
A Wake-up Call
Facebook user groups, he observed, had falsely propagated rumors that Bernie Sanders was a misogynist. They had sold information to police departments about Black Lives Matter advocates. In the UK, Facebook groups had contributed to an 8 percent voter swing that empowered Brexit. To that end, their messages had fostered xenophobic fears about illegal immigrants and other emotionally charged issues. And finally, the influence via Facebook of Russian-based trolls in America’s 2016 election was a threat to America’s democracy. These and other revelations propelled McNamee toward passionate activism.
“That was not the Facebook that I knew,” he told the gathering. “Does Facebook give an unfair advantage to messages with a negative emotional appeal, i.e., fear and anger?” he asked. “Does its business model empower bad people to harm good people?” For answers to those and other questions, McNamee went directly to Zuckerberg and Sandberg. It’s not about our algorithm, they insisted. The pair suggested that McNamee follow up with the company’s head of media partnerships, who responded: The law says that we’re a platform, not a media company. “I was pissed,” McNamee exclaimed. “They treated my concerns as a PR problem, not a business problem.” Recalling his former relationship with the company, he embraced self-blame, saying he missed Facebook’s potential for abuses for two reasons: “I was lazy and I wanted to believe in Zuck.”
Broader Cyber Vistas
With that said, McNamee cautioned the Isenberg audience about widespread intrusive practices both by hackers and in the industry itself. The web is replete with brain hacking via psychological tricks “to get you to come back to websites,” he insisted. “They appeal to our lizard brains—to fear and anger. They create havoc.” The business models of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others “are based on surveillance.” AI systems look for patterns—including demographics, visits to websites, and ad clicks. They position users for potential purchases and influence peddling. “Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others—they’ve all been tracking you for years,” he observed.
Those tactics, he emphasized, propagate and reinforce passivity among consumers and the citizenry. “We as a county have gotten lazy,” he insisted. Catalyzed by the internet, we spend excessive hours with like-minded fellow travelers in “filter bubbles,” a breeding ground for “more rigid, more extreme ideas.” The information that feeds those ideas, he added, is often distorted. “Forty percent of Americans identify with at least one idea that is false.”
Despite these challenges, “I am immensely optimistic,” McNamee told the gathering. The midterm national elections reversed results in key states by focusing on three groups that had been previously targeted by negative cyber hacking. The targets: white suburban women, people of color, and idealistic younger citizens. New regulations on cyber and data privacy in California and Massachusetts have also been bellwethers. The key to continuing progress, McNamee underscored, is vigilance and activism. In that, the author of Zucked has himself excelled both as a bellwether and inspiring role model.