A former adviser to Mark Zuckerberg has said democracy “may never recover” if Facebook does not change and has called for misuse of users’ data to be labelled as unethical as child labour.
Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook who has become a staunch critic of the business, said revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen have created an opportunity for change at Zuckerberg’s social media empire.
If Haugen’s testimonies and documents do not force reform by hitting the company’s profits, then democracy would suffer, he said, adding: “If it doesn’t then democracy and our ability to make our own choices may never recover.”
Speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon, McNamee repeated a recent demand that the extraction of user data and using it to manipulate consumer behaviour should be made as unethical as child labour. “Extracting the essence of our humanity in data form and then using it to manipulate our behaviour is as unethical as child labour and it should be banned the same way that child labour was banned,” he said.
Facebook generates its income from advertisers, who are able to target specific demographics and consumers because the company has built up profiles of its users through their online activity. Facebook’s parent company, Meta, which also owns the Instagram photo-sharing app and the WhatsApp messaging service, made $86bn (£63bn) in revenues last year. Nearly 2 billion people use Facebook every day.
Haugen has claimed in testimony, while also citing internal company documents, that Facebook manipulates user behaviour through algorithms that tailor what users see, particularly in promoting divisive content. Meta has denied it does this and that advertisers would shun a company that promotes extreme content. Speaking at the summit via video link on Tuesday, Nick Clegg, Meta’s VP of global affairs, said Facebook’s content was largely “babies, barbecues and barmitzvahs”.
McNamee, who co-founded investment firm Elevation Partners, said Haugen had approached whistleblowing like a product launch by disclosing company documents anonymously, then revealing her identity on TV and appearing in front of US senators before embarking on a wider publicity campaign, alongside Congress releasing the document cache to a consortium of news organisations.
“She is the first person ever to perceive that you could do whistleblowing like a tech product announcement, a tech product rollout,” said McNamee. “I would argue that the way she did her whistleblowing was the most effective product rollout since the original iPhone … And I just tip my hat to her. Simply brilliant.”
McNamee said the pacing of her revelations, which first appeared in the Wall Street Journal before she stepped into the public eye on the 60 Minutes TV programme, was akin to the film Jaws. “They don’t show you the shark at the beginning of the movie. There is a nice buildup and the anticipation makes the appearance of the shark more effective.” He added: “The impact of that … literally stopped the conversation and restarted it in a profound way.”
McNamee added that he was still willing to talk to Zuckerberg. He started advising Zuckerberg in 2006 but stopped three years later when he cited ambitions to reach 1 billion users, which McNamee thought too aggressive. “I would like to help him get this right,” said McNamee.
Another senior Meta executive defended the company against Haugen’s revelations on Wednesday. Speaking to the Web Summit via video link, Chris Cox, Meta’s chief product officer, said the debate created by the document leaks had raised an “important set of questions” but the ensuing furore had “lost track” of the multibillion dollar sums that Meta invests in keeping its users safe.