Facebook have the chance to drive change

When the movie The Social Network was released in 2010, I had been working in Technology Crime for 2 years. I will admit on the outset, well before I pressed play, I was already extremely frustrated with Facebook and Zuckerberg. I had been dealing with a massive number of incidents and cases, where staff at Facebook refused time and time again to assist with investigations and ignored requests for information. Even then they seemed untouchable and unconcerned about the protection of their users.

One of the first key lines in the movie pretty much had me nodding in agreeance. ‘Zuckerberg’ is splitting up with his girlfriend Erica, and as he carelessly insults her without regard, she ends the relationship with a succinct remark; “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you’re going to go through life thinking that girls don’t like you because you’re a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that won’t be true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”

Now Zuckerberg has stated that “Erica” does not exist and that he was never dating at that time. Many in his circle around then, state the girl depicted in the movie was in fact Jessica Alona. Regardless of who she was or if she existed, what does exist is a blog posted by Zuckerberg that night on his Livejournal, (Zuckonit) about his feelings for a girl of that name.

As the movie continued, I regularly came to the opinion, the Zuckerberg depicted didn’t seem to care about the feelings of others. For someone who seemed so focused on ‘bringing the world together’, he appeared to have a desperate deficiency in human relations. He failed to show concern when things went wrong, choosing instead to shrug his shoulders and simply move forward or change tact!

11 years later, a considerable population on the planet has come to the same opinion about the real-life Zuckerberg. He simply refuses to take moral ownership of the harm his networks are causing and fails to accept those harms are being exacerbated by his failure to act.

I have read articles from several commentators who believe Zuckerberg is being treated unfairly. But I simply cannot agree with that. For 13 years now, I have been dealing with the harm Zuckerberg’s networks have caused. Time and time again Facebook have failed to effectively act on harm minimisation, even ignoring their own research highlighting those harms.

In 2010, when I was working in the Computer Crime Division of the Western Australia Police, I was receiving regular emails from a contact at Facebook regarding the reporting options on their network. As I continued to deal with the massive rise in the victims of online crime contacting our office, I became increasingly frustrated at how poor those reporting options were and how rarely user concerns were addressed.

I started sending emails to that Facebook contact, questioning the lack of response to users concerns and asking what I could do to address those issues more effectively. I did get a couple of responses which were evasive in nature and failed to address the questions I was asking. By the 3rd email, that contact had blocked my email address. When I started sending emails via a secondary police address, that contact changed his email address completely.

If Facebook are willing to treat law enforcement with such disdain, then what hope is there for those members of the public looking for help, support or assistance in the removal of hateful or abusive content? Why have we accepted this for so long and why have such networks been allowed to grow and spread without more accountability toward ethical design? These questions must be addressed at a global level.

Zuckerberg is a self-confessed Computer Nerd. He has a very studious intellect and his immense drive to make things better, is exactly why he is the 5th richest person on the planet today. The hacker mentality is to build or test a system until it breaks. Once it is broken, you simply move onto the next project and start again. This appears so evident regarding the current situation he faces with Facebook and Instagram, as he re-brands his networks to the new entity Meta. His goal is to build the “Metaverse”, which by his own description will make Facebook seem miniscule.

The Metaverse is not FaceMash! Zuckerberg is no longer a 20year old nerd working out of his university dormitory, where he can build a network and then scrap it after a token apology to those he has harmed. FaceMash objectified woman and humiliated his peers. He broke the law by gaining unauthorised access to university data bases and refused to admit he was in the wrong.

Zuckerberg’s failure to understand or show concern for those he upset because of FaceMash, resonates in his numerous failings to date. Some could also argue it equally reflects his numerous successes! The fact he suggested he should have been thanked for highlighting deficiencies in the universities data security, would suggest it is his personality which may well be the catalyst for his woes today and not his business model.

Facebook is a global phenomenon! Since it’s birth in 2004, it has risen to become the world’s largest social network and has remained at the top for 13 years. Facebook has shifted how organisations do business and how individuals across the planet interact online. The acquisition of Instagram by Zuckerberg in 2011, has seen that network also grow to become a global leader as the 4th largest network in 2021. Whether we like it or not and whether Zuckerberg admits it or not, his platforms are influencing people and they are swaying how we act.

Since the birth of internet messaging in 1996, people have been chatting and interacting online in social situations. Since Friendster (launched 2002) and MySpace (launched 2003), the desire and excitement for online interaction has evolved exponentially into the modern giants of Social Networking we see today. Since those very early years, people have been posting what they want online without any real moderation or protection, because there was no governance on those environments. A user could say what they wanted to whom they wanted and there was nothing that could be done.

Image courtesy Electronic Frontier FoundationIn fact, in 1996 legislation was introduced into the US which protected the networks from legal action for anything posted on their environments. Section 230, under the Communications Decency Act, gave network creators immunity from prosecution for third party content. This legislation had a very strong side effect, as it greatly relieved the pressure for the networks to moderate their environments. Even though some tech commentators at the time stated Section 230 would increase moderation because networks could remove content without fear of civil action, it did not. As time went by, many international sites and apps would host their environments in the US to take advantage of that protection.

In my opinion this is where the line between the legal requirement to protect users and the moral obligation to do so, was clearly drawn. “If I don’t have to do it, then I won’t!”, could well be the statement, but does that make it right? This is the question I have been asking for 13 years.

Zuckerberg is a businessman, he has not risen to his position by getting kittens out of trees or helping old ladies cross the road. Moderation is not cost effective and impacts on content sharing. It takes time and drains resources and that chews heavily into profits. So why focus on something which is not a requirement? This ethos, whether admitted by network owners or not, has driven social networking for the past decade at least.

Many big tech companies have taken steps toward protecting users, but these have always been token responses usually reactive in nature. We have seen this time in time again with Facebook in particular. Zuckerberg and other leaders at Facebook have appeared several times before Senate hearings or tribunals since 2013. We have heard statements such as “It was my mistake” and “We need to get better”, yet when those hearings are finished, it seems it is just back to business as usual.

The latest scandal involving Frances Haugen and the release of The Facebook Files, not only reflects that moderation is still not a priority at Facebook but shows succinctly that they refuse to act on harm minimisation, even when their own research reveals harm is occurring.

Many are espousing the moderation of social networking means the end of freedom of speech. Others state government censorship or regulation will mean a dictatorship and loss of rights. I simply refuse to accept those arguments. Putting controls in place to minimise the most hateful and abhorrent content online is not a removal of rights. It is a reinforcement of the values which should be expected by any decent member of society.

Many would agree the invention of the motor car was just as a significant moment in history as social networking is today. The motor industry has very strict rules and guidelines regarding how a vehicle is designed and specific rules regarding driver and passenger safety. You cannot release a car into any country without these rules being adhered to. Yet have these rules stopped us buying and using motorcycles, cars, trucks and busses in massive numbers since 1886? Have they stopped us being able to get around where and how we want on our roads? Of course not!

We have all have grown with the clear understanding the safety of the vehicles we drive continues to evolve and be implemented for the safety of all road users. Why has it taken so long for that same level of user safety to be considered for the online world?

For too long we have seen the most horrific online content liked, shared and promoted, whilst the creators of the environments it is happening on turn a blind eye. If Frances Haugen is to be believed, then not only have Facebook turned a blind eye, they have in fact promoted and encouraged that behaviour. And whether we like to admit it or not, this is having a significant impact on society.

Image courtesy Electronic Frontier FoundationSafety by design is now a concept all online creators must embrace and drive toward. If, like Facebook they do not have the moral decency to do it themselves, then it should be forced upon them. Some networks have realised by getting in early, they will be able to set a trend of respect which many users (teens especially) will push to. Attracting new users who can have fun and interact with their peers as usual, whilst having options to be protected when things go wrong, is not such a difficult concept. If you can get it right, then you will be onto the next game changing event.

Facebook has challenged Congress to force change. Director of Police Communications, Lena Pietsch has stated quite clearly it is up to legislators to make Facebook safer, not Facebook themselves. This is a heartless statement, spouted for one reason and once reason only; When laws are finally put in place to regulate social networking, Zuckerberg can throw Facebook and Instagram on the scrap heap and blame everyone else for its demise.

Instead of having the guts to dig into his recent $86billion profit and spend some money on decent moderation and user protection, he will simply walk away and focus on luring a new set of unsuspecting followers into his Metaverse.

We cannot allow that to happen. It is time a line is drawn clearly in the sand.