On Facebook and "Surveillance Capitalism"

Photo by  NASA

Photo by NASA

Last week,  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in his Wall Street Journal op-ed “The Facts About Facebook”, said:

  • When I started Facebook, I wasn’t trying to build a global company.I realized you could find almost anything on the internet—music, books, information—except the thing that matters most: people. … Over the years, billions have found this useful, and we’ve built more services that people around the world love and use every day.

  • There’s no question that we collect some information for ads—but that information is generally important for security and operating our services as well. For example, companies often put code in their apps and websites so when a person checks out an item, they later send a reminder to complete the purchase. But this type of signal can also be important for detecting fraud or fake accounts." 

  • Separately, investor Roger McNamee, in his Time article “I Mentored Mark Zuckerberg. I Loved Facebook. But I Can’t Stay Silent About What’s Happening”, said:

  • To feed its AI and algorithms, Facebook gathered data anywhere it could. Before long, Facebook was spying on everyone, including people who do not use Facebook. Unfortunately for users, Facebook failed to safeguard that data. Facebook sometimes traded the data to get better business deals. These things increased user count and time on-site, but it took another innovation to make Facebook’s advertising business a giant success …  

  • "If I consider Google, Amazon and Facebook purely in investment terms, I cannot help but be impressed by the brilliant way they have executed their business plans. The problem is unintended consequences, which are more numerous and severe than we can afford. Google and Facebook are artificially profitable because they do not pay for the damage they cause.

  • “the government must take steps to repair the damage from Internet platforms. We need to rebuild institutions, find common ground with those with whom we disagree, and start acting like one country again. The political and social power of Facebook and the other Internet platforms is unhealthy and inappropriate in a democracy like ours. We must hold them accountable and insist on real-world solutions, not more code.”

  • Finally, Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, in her Financial Times article “In Facebook, Google and a dark age of surveillance capitalism”, said:

  • “where we live now [is] a world in which nearly every product or service that begins with the word “smart” or “personalised”, every internet-enabled device or vehicle, every “digital assistant” — each is a supply-chain interface for the unobstructed flow of behavioural data… 
    Surveillance capitalism extends this pattern by declaring private human experience as free raw material that can be computed and fashioned into behavioural predictions for production and exchange … 
    “If surveillance capitalism is to be interrupted, tamed, even outlawed, we will need new laws, regulations, and forms of collective actiontailored to specific mechanisms.”


  • Regarding opportunities for new business: The concerns noted above (and by other commentators) suggest that there are opportunities for new business models, products and services. Approaches to consider include community/creator/workgroup-centric systems and edge rather than cloud based processing.  

  • Regarding McNamee’s and Zuboff’s recommendations for more accountability, laws and regulations: Such efforts need to address the differences in various jurisdictions as well as addressing the lobbying efforts of large tech players.

  • Regarding Zuckerberg’s comment: Facebook faces a trust problem with some users, but others find value in the “free” nature of its platform. The firm's performance in the coming quarters will provide insights into its future growth trend. (Facebook reports Q4 financial results on Jan. 30)

Paul Dravis