Roger McNamee: Facebook, Privacy, and Creating Better Tech Policy
In recent years, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms have come under increasing scrutiny for their role in spreading harmful disinformation. On February 24, 2021 the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy held a virtual conversation to examine these technological threats, and to weigh possible solutions.
The event’s featured speaker was Roger McNamee, an early investor in Facebook and Google and founder of the venture capital firm Elevation Partners. The conversation was moderated by Dean of the Goldman School Henry Brady, who questioned McNamee and weighed in on issues of public policy.
McNamee was a close friend and adviser to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg up until 2016, when he tried to convince Zuckerberg that Facebook’s business model was harming democracy and society. When McNamee’s appeals were ignored, he became an outspoken advocate for using public policy to limit the power of large tech companies.
The event began with a presentation, during which McNamee explained how the technology industry had reached its current state. According to McNamee, the industry had a culture of ethical, responsible behavior up until 2004, when limitations on technological development lessened dramatically.
“This advance brought about an extreme form of libertarianism, along with the idea that tech developers could do whatever they wanted because they were special,” McNamee said. “If the public gets hurt by your products, then that’s their problem—this is the whole philosophy of ‘move fast and break things’.”
McNamee explained that, as the 2000s progressed, tech companies began to shift their focus towards disrupting traditional industries. Using Uber and Airbnb as examples, McNamee asserted that this “parasitic” business model now lies at the root of most technological harms to society.
McNamee detailed his experiences with Facebook during the 2016 presidential election, when he realized that advertising tools relying on users’ private information could be used to alter electoral outcomes. He also discovered that Facebook’s underlying algorithms were promoting hate speech and conspiracy theories, showing users posts that seized their attention by shocking and angering them.
“During the capitol insurrection, tens of thousands of people stormed the capitol—all convinced that the presidential election had been stolen,” McNamee said. “These political conspiracy theories were amplified by Facebook. Their business is based on our attention, and the crazier the idea, the more it grabs us.”
McNamee explained that through this process, communication systems give disproportionate visibility to extreme voices in the political sphere. He added that this is why social media’s recent rise has coincided with radical political shifts and growing polarization.
“Public policy is the instrument through which these negative forces can be counteracted,” McNamee said, moving on to possible solutions to tech companies’ failures. “In order to implement the necessary policies, we first need to recognize that democracy and civil rights are more important than Facebook’s share price.”
McNamee pointed to broad deregulation as a policy choice that would need to be reversed in order to reduce the power of large tech companies. He added that a necessary form of regulation is limiting platforms’ ability to harvest the data of their users.
“We need to legislate that certain sets of data should never be shared—they should be vaporized after they’re used,” McNamee said. “To start, the government should not allow firms to harvest health, location, and web browsing data.”
Another avenue for regulation would be anti-monopoly law, which could be used to shrink the size of large tech companies or split them into smaller, competing companies. McNamee explained that it would be difficult to compel tech companies to improve their practices without government intervention.
McNamee also voiced support for amending Section 230, a piece of legislation that protects tech companies from facing legal liability for the harm caused by their products. If Section 230 were altered, social media companies would be incentivized to halt the spread of harmful information on their platforms.
“Today, the threat that internet platforms pose exceeds anything that we’ve seen before,” McNamee said. “Whichever policy solution we choose to implement first, we need to act as soon as we can.”
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