Inside the Information Society: Marking Mark’s card. A comment on Mark Zuckerberg’s manifesto

Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week's blog post comments on Mark Zuckerberg says in his recent online "manifesto".

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive of Facebook, recently published a "manifesto" about his company, the Internet and society in general. Last week, I said why I think it is important. This week, some comments on its content.

A recap

But first a recap. Zuckerberg's views matter because he runs one of the most important online businesses – a business which has global reach and dominates the Internet experience of many users (through WhatsApp as well as Facebook).

The Internet today is pervasive and commercial. It is changing, fundamentally, the ways in which economies, societies and cultures work – particularly in the North, increasingly in the South.

I think it's crucial in this context that its leading decision-makers – whether they're technical experts (like Tim Berners-Lee), politicians, or business leaders like Zuckerberg – think about the bigger picture, and about the impact that the Internet is having on society, for good or ill.

Many critiques of Zuckerberg's manifesto from the Internet community have been strangely narrow-minded; others thoughtful. The most interesting assessment I've read came from the historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari: "It is a good sign," he wrote, "that the social media leviathan is leading the call for a global community. It is more difficult to see how far Facebook is willing to change its own business model to match its ideology."

It's in that spirit, and with that question, that I'll comment on some content.

The point is in the title

Few commentators have focused on the title of the "manifesto", which is Building Global Community, but that's important. "Facebook," says Zuckerberg, "stands for bringing us together and building a global community." And, again, "the most important thing we at Facebook can do is develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us."

He's been criticized, rightly, for over-reach. Facebook may be large but it's not universal, and it's a company not global government. No-one, other than Facebook, has given it the responsibilities of global leadership that are implied here; and no-one other than Facebook's likely to do so.

But here's a thought experiment. Read those sentences again, substituting the words "the Internet" for "Facebook". If you do that, those sentences aren't very different from what the Internet community has said about the Internet's potential to transform the world for decades. With that replacement, they could have come from Cerf or Berners-Lee.

Three things are interesting here. First, that Facebook's CEO identifies Facebook so closely with the Internet itself (as do so many of his users). Second, that he senses that Facebook's global reach and dominance imply responsibilities as well as rights. And third, that he realises its commercial interests are likely to be undermined if that is not acknowledged and addressed.

Do we have a shared vision of "global community"?

Zuckerberg's opening question's this: "Are we building the world we all want?" The implication's that we're aren't but can. The alternative's that we aren't and can't, because we don't all want the same.

The international community has several reference points for global unity – the UN Charter, for example; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – though they're often breached in practice. The ICT/Internet community has its agreed aspirations too – like the World Summit's call for "a people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society" – but there's no universal view about what that means, or how it can be achieved.

Zuckerberg recognises this when he writes that "our community spans many countries and cultures, and the norms are different in each region." Even more so in what I find the most interesting sentence in his document, though it's had little comment: "With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance."

Is that one universal Internet or not?

Or "social infrastructure"?

One term Zuckerberg uses repeatedly is "social infrastructure". That's been mocked by some in the Internet community, but he explains clearly what he means: "communities, media and governments." "Our job at Facebook," he says, "is to help people make the greatest positive impact while mitigating areas where technology and social media can contribute to divisiveness and isolation."

He is accepting here that the Internet should not be seen as an unmitigated good. The implication is that the Internet community (which these days is primarily commercial) has a responsibility to address problems that arise from some of the ways in which it's used and some of the unintended impacts it has on societies and economies.

Zuckerberg's text considers five goals for communities in this apparent project: that they should be "supportive", "safe", "informed", civilly engaged and "inclusive". Few are likely to disagree with those objectives in themselves. It's on the detail that disagreement's going to come. There's no space here to look at each of them, so I'll focus on a couple.

Online and offline communities

"Building a global community that works for everyone," says Zuckerberg, "starts with the millions of smaller communities and intimate social structures we turn to for our personal, emotional and spiritual needs." He sees online communities as a bright spot surrounded by "decline in the important social infrastructure of local communities" – a bright spot which he thinks can strengthen offline communities.

I agree with Harari here. Online communities (and friendships) can support offline communities (and friendships), but they can also detract from them. Time spent online is time not spent offline. Zuckerberg's view that Facebook communities can "reinforce our physical communities by bringing us together in person to support each other" looks like aspiration rather than real lived experience. Real experience – see the alt.right – also shows that online networks can be used to drive communities apart.

Shared and unshared values

Similar problems arise, I think, in Zuckerberg's sections on "informed" and "inclusive" communities.

The aspirations here are fine, and recognition of them welcome. Zuckerberg's concerned (rightly) about "filter bubbles" (lack of exposure to content with which one disagrees) and the loss of public trust in information sources resulting from "fake news" (or propaganda). He's concerned to find ways of navigating the complex minefields caused when a universal platform confronts conflicting social and cultural norms in areas like hate speech and nudity. He wants to address issues of "information diversity and misinformation," though he's more worried by "sensationalism and polarization."

I'm less convinced by some of the proposals he puts forward, which are clearly work in progress. "A strong news industry," he says, is "critical to building an informed community" – but we're given no idea how he would "support the news industry to make sure this vital social function is sustainable" – some challenge given the extent to which Facebook's advertising model has undermined traditional news media.

His suggested approach to developing "Community Standards" looks thin as well. Its guiding principles, he says, should be that they "reflect the cultural norms" of people's own communities, enabling individuals to see "as little objectionable content as possible" but also share with others what they want to share. How? By a combination of more individual controls on content and the use of artificial intelligence to identify what they may or may not like.

Three problems there for me. Firstly, people live in multiple communities – social, racial, sexual, occupational, ideological – which can't be geographically confined. Second, in practice people don't use personal controls as they're intended. And third, we've already seen the problems ("filter bubbles" and the like) that arise when algorithms choose our content for us.

To conclude

I've been critical of some of the ideas in Zuckerberg's manifesto. But I'll go back to my first theme. We've had years of Internet evangelism from the ICT community. It's encouraging that the CEO of Facebook is willing to explore some of the challenges the Internet is causing, and invite comment from others on his views.

Of course his motives are substantially commercial. He runs a business, and speaks to its interests. His vision for that business reaches beyond what many people, myself included, think appropriate. There's corporate over-reach involved. And he makes no mention of some issues on which his company is challenged, like taxation. But multistakeholder dialogue requires people from all stakeholder groups to speak from their own perspectives. Those who've sneered at Zuckerberg for publishing should think again, welcome perspectives that they disagree with, and encourage more.

'Inside the Information Society' will be taking a spring break for the next two weeks. It will be back on the 24th of April.

David Souter David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David's blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC's. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter.

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