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Senators Brought Up Serious Issues With Facebook, McNamee Says


Mark Zuckerberg is back on Capitol Hill today. Facebook's CEO is taking questions about the abuse of user data by his social network. He's on the House side today. Yesterday, he was in the Senate, where he certainly did not satisfy some members, including Democrat Kamala Harris of California.


KAMALA HARRIS: You've been asked several critical questions for which you don't have answers.

GREENE: We spoke about Zuckerberg's appearance on Capitol Hill earlier this morning with Roger McNamee. He is managing director at the private equity firm Elevation Partners. He was also an early investor in Facebook. He's still a current investor. He's also been a mentor to Mark Zuckerberg. Mr. McNamee, thanks for coming on the program, we appreciate it.

ROGER MCNAMEE: My pleasure.

GREENE: So Mark Zuckerberg was kind of grilled yesterday by a lot of senators for a good number of hours. How do you think he did?

MCNAMEE: So I think that Mark's performance was fine. I think the issue with the entire hearing was that the senators brought up at least a dozen different issues before I lost count, every one of which was serious, you know, ranging from civil rights issues to civil liberties issues to election interference to, you know, identity theft, et cetera. Every one of them was the result of Facebook's business model, that is to say conscious choices made by Facebook in order to maximize its growth. And where Mark, I think, had returned to Washington this time in year 14 or 15 of what has been a never-ending apology tour. You know, the company's motto of move fast and break things has a little postscript of apologize and then they go back to business as though nothing had ever happened.

GREENE: You think that's what's happening here? You think he's apologizing but - in Congress and then plans to go back to business as usual? Because he seemed to, I mean, he said he's committed to changing. He's open to regulation. I mean, he certainly made it sound like he's ready to act. You're not convinced?

MCNAMEE: No. And I think that Mark believes that he's willing to do those things. But this is a very, very large company up against a Congress that, at the moment, is struggling just to get budgets passed. I think passing regulation through our legislative body right now is going to be a long and very difficult process. It favors the incumbent, in this case Facebook. And so I think from his point of view, there's no cost to being diplomatic. And, you know, the reality is that Facebook has become too large. And in its huge scale, they really have no idea what's going on inside the platform around the world.

You know, I think they were genuinely surprised to discover that the terror going on in Myanmar against the Rohingya minority was being enabled by Facebook. I think they were genuinely surprised that in the Philippines, the regime there uses Facebook to legitimize things like death squads. I mean, I think that kind of stuff actually has caught them by surprise. But I also don't think there's anything that they can do about it without changing their business model. And I think they're very reluctant to do that.

GREENE: You think Mark Zuckerberg is not willing to change the basic business model if that's what it takes to protect people and rein in his company?

MCNAMEE: Well, I think he will look for any alternative before changing the business model.

GREENE: And are there alternatives that might protect users short of changing the business model?

MCNAMEE: I think the great difficulty here is they've created one of the most profitable, successful businesses in history. And they are, you know, understandably reluctant to change that. Facebook, for all the good it does and all the beautiful things that go on inside the product, Facebook has become a real threat to democracy. I think it's become a threat to civil liberties around the world and to civil rights in many parts of the United States. And I just think that counting on Facebook to fix these things is a fool's errand.

GREENE: Couldn't you argue that there are some possible solutions? I mean, for example, in Europe, there are laws being considered where users would have to opt in if their data was going to be shared. And if there were fixes like that, wouldn't you get to a point where, even if you believe that Facebook is a threat to democracy, people are deciding to be on this platform and using it voluntarily, and their information is only going to be shared if they allow it, and if they don't think it's a threat to democracy, then the company can go on?

MCNAMEE: David, you know, that is a brilliant point. What my job in this entire thing has been to try to stimulate a national conversation about what is the appropriate role of social media. In Europe, the Global Data Protection Regulation which you're describing goes into effect May 25. It protects Europeans no matter where they are in the world, even when they're in the United States. A perfect outcome relative to data privacy would be if Facebook and Google and others were to embrace the Global Data Protection Regulation. I think it's very unlikely that the U.S. Congress is going to get something like that through quickly. You know, I think we're going to have to have some changes in leadership. But I think that would be a wonderful direction.

What worries me is we have an election coming up in a matter of months, and Facebook has done almost nothing to prevent a recurrence of what happened in 2016. And from my perspective, that's disappointing. And I say this as someone who spent years mentoring Mark Zuckerberg and introducing him to Sheryl Sandberg back in 2007. And so I look at this with great regret but also, you know, an understanding that this isn't my call. I'm just trying to help people understand what the tradeoffs are.

GREENE: Roger McNamee, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

MCNAMEE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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