Porritt and Facebook – a night to remember

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

Last Tuesday evening, I spend three hours watching drama.  First, there was Jonathon Porritt's I-SEE seminar in Bath, and then there was Mark Zuckerberg's appearance before a sprawling Senate mega-committee at the US Capitol.

They were, of course, differently dramatic.  One was based on mostly well-rehearsed and not terribly forthcoming answers to some pretty poor questions.  The other also had questions (much better ones) but these came at the end of a 45 minute tour d'horizon of where we are, climate-speaking.  The first of these was about the world of Facebook – a self-centred place in almost every sense; the second about the World itself.  Both were, one way or another, about sustaining things.

I wondered, watching Zuckerberg on TV, if he thought he'd gotten away with it.  While he was watching, his polite, all-grown-up facade only slipped once when he answered a naive question about his business model.  This came from Senator Hatch [84] who asked how Facebook made money if its products were free.  Mr Z said: “Senator, we sell ads.”  But, as Iain Martin commented in Thursday's Times, the answer was as revealing as the smirk that accompanied it.  Martin wrote:

"Zuckerberg’s “we sell ads” is a rather revealing and clear explanation of a supposedly miraculous business that was promoted by the tech community as the product of innate chino-clad genius.  Facebook never was a touchy-feely, do-good enterprise focused solely on “community”, though.  The collection of data, and using it to sell adverts and services over which it is now in trouble, is not an aberration.  It is Zuckerberg’s entire business model."

And always has been.  I understand that the advertising income per US user is currently $84 worth of personal information which users are seemingly happy to provide; but would they be happy to fork out $84 in cash instead?

I thought the best question was one that clearly had not been anticipated by Team Zuckerberg.  It was: "Would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed in last night?"

His response, which was a long time coming, was "No", and this exposed the gulf between Facebook's owner and its community of users.  As Martin noted:

"Facebook knows where its billions of users stayed last night: why is that OK while the Facebook boss’s movements are deemed private?"

It was obvious that Zuckerberg immediately understood the trap set by the clever question.  While it was bad enough to say No; that is, it's none of your ******* business) it might have been worse to give the details.  In a gloomy 90 minutes, it was a moment of brilliant light.  One thing I'd not appreciated was that the codebase that Facebook uses for its interface is open source (as is Google's powerful artificial intelligence engine) – not that the Senators asked about this.

Niall Fergusson's Sunday Times column was about the Senate hearing.  He commented:

"Here are four reasons why much tougher questions were warranted last week.  If you ever signed up for Facebook, hundreds of advertisers have your contact information, and Facebook has your entire contacts list, not to mention a complete list of all the times you logged in, which device you used and where you were.  If you are an Android user, Facebook also logs your call and text history.  If you log off Facebook, it can still track your browsing activity.  And even if you never signed up for Facebook, the company may still have a “shadow profile” of you."

Inevitably, the Economist has a useful background piece on the troubles Facebook has stored up for itself.  There will be posts later in the week about Jonathon's seminar.


Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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