Facebook CEO’s plea for understanding gets very few likes

Mark Zuckerberg got a self-justifying op-ed published in the WSJ but reaction to it has been negative.

He didn’t get off to a great start by publishing a piece that opened with the following statement behind a paywall. “If we’re committed to serving everyone, then we need a service that is affordable to everyone. The best way to do that is to offer services for free, which ads enable us to do.”

Zuck then commenced with a fairly generic summary of the ad-funded internet model, which seemed at best redundant but could easily be interpreted a witheringly patronising. It was as if he was saying: ‘since you clearly still don’t get it, here it is once more for the people at the back.’

The Electronic Frontier Foundation went for the latter view in a piece headlined In WSJ Op-Ed, Mark Zuckerberg Speaks Down to Users and Misses the Point. It questioned the necessity of gathering private data in order to target advertising. The piece also attacked Facebook’s repeated claim that it doesn’t sell user data by pointing out that that it does monetise that data, so this is really just semantics.

Recode thinks the piece was written in anticipation of looming regulatory pressure. Likely to compound that pressure are Facebook’s apparent plans to merge the messaging features of Facebook and Instagram with WhatsApp. Although all three are already owned by Facebook (the latter two by acquisition), taking perceived choice out of the messaging market is likely to attract the attention of regulators.

Those were two of the more gentle critiques. TechCrunch decided to lean heavily on appeal to emotions with a lengthy diatribe that started by questioning the moral foundations of the site and highlighting a recent tragedy in which social media is suspected of being a complicating factor. The piece then degenerated into accusations of ‘mansplaining’ and making repeated calls for censorship that are surprising from a journalistic organisation.

And then we had the NYT’s veteran tech commentator offering to Fix That Op-Ed You Wrote. It used the well-established mechanism of copying chunks what was written and then interpreting their underlying meaning, but did so in such a puerile way that it’s easy to assume that the writer out-sourced the whole thing to someone doing work experience. Regardless, the writer was unambiguous about the disdain in which they holds Zuck’s piece.

The fact that some hacks got a bit carried away doesn’t detract from the underlying point, however, that this was a weak effort by Zuckerberg. Once you get past the ‘how the internet works’ bits, you get to ominous statements of censorious intent such as “The only reason bad content remains is because the people and artificial-intelligence systems we use to review it are not perfect.” This implies that Facebook’s aim is to eradicate ‘bad’ content entirely, while being the sole arbiter of what qualifies.

If you assume Recode is right, and this piece was written specifically for the attention of regulators, then it does seem to get some stuff right. It makes the point that Facebook does empower individuals and small businesses to communicate with the rest of the world in ways that were previously unavailable and hints at the delicate balance it needs to strike between freedom and safety. The problem is nobody seems to think it’s getting that balance right, regardless of their priorities.

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