After three years of external pressure Facebook hasn’t done enough to fix the problems created by its platform, argues Roger McNamee an early Facebook investor turned vocal big tech critic. 

McNamee spent 34 years as a Silicon Valley investor and venture capitalist. But since observing the same tools that make Facebook “the most effective platform for advertising can be used to distort a democratic election” he has been advocating for greater scrutiny of big tech and the culture of Silicon Valley. 

Speaking today at McAfee’s MPower conference in Las Vegas, McNamee said he initially reached out the Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to warn them there was “something structurally wrong with the business model, with the algorithms and with the culture of Facebook that was allowing bad people to hurt innocent people”. 

According to McNamee, “they were pretending like these issues weren’t their problem.” Three years on, not much has changed. 

“I became a critic of the very industry I had devoted my life to,” McNamee said. “Not because tech is bad – tech is great – but because of the culture of a handful of companies, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon is completely off the rails and is undermining democracy, privacy and the economy.” 

So far McNamee has been unsatisfied with the response from Facebook, even after external pressure has forced the company to address problems around data privacy and election interference. 

“All this stuff you’re doing is basically just public relations, it doesn’t go to the core of the problem,” McNamee said. 

He referenced the leaked audio of Zuckerberg’s all-hands meeting published by The Verge this week as evidence that the company’s founder doesn’t see the problems with Facebook’s business. 

“He still doesn’t understand that the way he’s looking at this may not, in fact, be the best way to look at it for the purposes of society as a whole.” 

The solution would require a fundamental rethink of Facebook’s business model, McNamee argued, where behavioural insights are no longer sold off to the highest bidder and algorithms aren’t tuned to drive engagement by amplifying hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories.

“Mark is one good night’s sleep away from thinking that he can do more good by reforming the business model of Facebook by getting out of surveillance capitalism than he can possibly do with 1,000 [philanthropic] Chan-Zuckerberg Initiatives.” 

“And the weirdest thing is, what is another $10 billion to Mark in comparison to actually being the equivalent of Gandhi of the 21st century? [That’s] what would happen if he dedicated his whole life to fixing these problems, because he’s in a position to do a huge part of it all by itself. 

“Here’s what the real problem is: Mark does not believe that he’s doing anything wrong. He really believes that it’s his job to connect the whole world on one giant network.”  

Antitrust isn’t a silver bullet to fix all social media’s woes

Due to a lack of action from inside the company, McNamee argued change will need to come from outside Facebook – from the government and the people using its products.

Antitrust, or the break up of big tech, is one outcome which has gained traction with both sides of US politics. 

“If you had told me three years ago that there would be antitrust investigations spinning up at the state level, at the federal level and that we would be having the kind of conversation we’re having now, I wouldn’t have thought that was impossible.” 

McNamee said people shouldn’t fear antitrust, that it isn’t going to take away what people love about the internet, but will spur more innovation. He also emphasised that Facebook’s and big tech’s problems go far beyond competition regulation. 

“Why do we want to live in a world where four companies [have all the] value? You should want to live in a world of entrepreneurs are going to create new things every day where there’s maximum innovation. So don’t be afraid of antitrust, but also is not a silver bullet – it only takes care of competition, you also have to worry about people’s mental health. We need to worry about democracy.”

Tess Bennett travelled to MPower in Las Vegas as a guest of McAfee. 

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