Watching Mark Zuckerberg testify in front of senators and members of Congress about Cambridge Analytica and wider concerns around Facebook’s omnipotence was painful viewing at times.
Yes, Zuckerberg’s uncomfortable delivery and stilted prose indicated that the portrayal of a charismatic maverick in The Social Network film was perhaps a further cry from reality than first thought. But it wasn’t Zuckerberg who was responsible for the most cringeworthy moments.
Instead, US lawmakers made crystal clear that they are utterly clueless about the kinds of technologies that infiltrate every aspect of modern life. And it’s terrifying.
Septuagenarians who boasted about having Facebook URLs on their business cards as a badge of their technological awareness were tasked with scrutinising the complex practices of a conglomerate of social media platforms that they have little to no understanding of.
At times, Zuckerberg was running rings around the politicians. He barely had to move out of first gear given the rudimentary questioning that was on offer: “How does Facebook make money?”, “Is Twitter the same as Facebook?”. Those asking these questions are the people entrusted with protecting the fundamental human right to privacy.
One antiquated congressman tried to compare the concept of regulating Facebook to how the US government had to get to grips with a burgeoning auto industry in the 1950s. The difference, of course, is that the auto industry was on the radar of legislators long before the horse had bolted the stable.
Matters aren’t much better in the UK, where MPs are barely getting to grips with using filters on Instagram. How can we expect them to probe the immense complexities of data collection and privacy when it’s taking place on this scale?
Today, Facebook has in excess of two billion users. Together, WhatsApp, Facebook, Messenger and Instagram (all owned by Facebook) are the top four most downloaded apps in the world, in that order. Any idea of crafting regulation to meaningfully protect consumers’ privacy at this stage is almost farcical.
The reality is that, on both sides of the Atlantic, governments and legislatures are packed with analogue politicians desperately out of their depth in this digital age. At a time when we look to politicians for leadership, they simply cannot deliver.
A plethora of seismic challenges loom large over the digital space, and political leaders must face up to these sooner rather than later.
Concepts like net neutrality, that could see internet providers seeking to charge consumers more for using particular web services, must be properly understood. Complicated debates must be had around encryption, which needs to balance privacy protection with keeping us safe. Answers have to be found about the future of cryptocurrencies.
These are all wildly perplexing topics that deserve proper scrutiny and understanding that simply isn’t on offer from today’s political class.
The one thing Zuckerberg’s appearances in front of US legislators shed light on more than any other is that it is not the vast knowledge Facebook has about our lives that should worry us – it’s the understanding about the digital world that politicians lack.