After a brutal 2018, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has resolved to host regular public discussions in 2019 about the future of technology in society. The pledge has drawn a mixed response from leading figures in technology and politics.
2018 was something of an annus horribilis for Mark Zuckerberg, as his Facebook business faced unprecedented public criticism for failures on data privacy and mental health, and the company’s share value tanked by 25% by year end.
In December, the New York Times reported that Facebook had allowed third-party firms to use its data, including allowing them to read private messages and see the contact details and activities of friends.
Now Zuckerberg, who in 2018 faced scrutiny by US regulators following the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal, has made it his annual ‘personal challenge’ to discuss the future of technology in society.
In a Facebook post to his 120m followers on Tuesday, Zuckerberg promised to focus on “the opportunities, the challenges, the hopes and the anxieties” about how technology is shaping human behaviour.
He wrote: “There are so many big questions about the world we want to live in and technology’s place in it. Do we want technology to keep giving more people a voice, or will traditional gatekeepers control what ideas can be expressed? Should we decentralize authority through encryption or other means to put more power in people’s hands?
“In a world where many physical communities are weakening, what role can the internet play in strengthening our social fabric? How do we build an internet that helps people come together to address the world’s biggest problems that require global-scale collaboration?
“How do we build technology that creates more jobs rather than just building AI to automate things people do? What form will this all take now that the smartphone is mature? And how do we keep up the pace of scientific and technological progress across fields?”
“I’m going to put myself out there more than I’ve been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go,” he explained.
“Every few weeks I’ll talk with leaders, experts, and people in our community from different fields and I’ll try different formats to keep it interesting,” he added. “These will all be public, either on my Facebook or Instagram pages or on other media.”
Each new year, Zuckerberg comes up with a personal challenge. In past years he noted that he has built an Ai for his home, visited every US state, read 25 books and learned Mandarin.
Last year’s personal challenge saw Zuckerberg pledge to “fix Facebook”. Given the tribulations of 2018, it seems safe to say that this challenge remains largely unfulfilled.
On the face of it it’s laudable that Zuckerberg says he’ll open up on these issues. But, given the dreadful year just gone, and the remaining failures of the Facebook platform, it’s unsurprising that the response to pledge has been mainly cynical. “We just need you to stop selling our data with your friends,” said one comment. Another tweeted that “Zuckerberg on the decline, just as the stock… Time for a new CEO?”
In London, MP Damian Collins, who was livid at Zuckerberg’s refusal to appear before his DCMS committee last year (see pic), tweeted that “Mark Zuckerberg can start off his 2019 tech talk tour by coming to London and answering questions from the UK parliament.”
As one of the experts asked by the Guardian to offer their own advice, Doteveryone chief executive Rachel Coldicutt told the Guardian that said Zuckerberg should be “breaking up Facebook into at least three smaller companies, while he steps away from the computer and focuses on learning something more low risk for the rest of humanity, like falconry maybe, or macramé.”
Not all reactions were negative. One backer commented: “You provided the world with the best communication medium since the invention of the telephone. Ignore the haters and those who try to put a break on your aspirations.”
Another welcomed Zuckerberg’s pledge to talk. “This is awesome. Be great to talk to a diverse group of folks from around the world. Too many of these debates are dominated by a very small number of voices in the US and Western Europe.”