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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is set to testify before U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday and Wednesday and is expected to apologize for both his company's role in a data privacy scandal and for foreign interference in the 2016 elections.
Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, joined Morning Edition to talk about Zuckerberg and Facebook.
This transcript has been lightly edited.
Bob Oakes: What do you expect to hear from Mark Zuckerberg?
I think Zuckerberg has an unenviable task. In many ways, Zuckerberg is getting blamed not just for the hot water that he's in with Cambridge Analytica, but Facebook has really become sort of the focal point of a lot of our anxieties about data that's being collected in what a lot of people are starting to think of as "surveillance capitalism." So he's got a lot to answer for — not just for him but really for the whole online advertising industry and the implications of that.
What message then do you think the Cambridge Analytica scandal sends to other big internet companies who depend on ads and who have been collecting user data? Is this cautionary for them or is this not going to slow them down at all?
I think what's going to happen is that you're going to see a lot more caution about how data gets shared. As far as advertising and transparency, I don't see this necessarily driving us away from the model of surveillance-based advertising and that's what really worries me.
I think this model in which lots of different companies are collecting psychographic and behavioral information and trading it back and forth — I think at root that is something that Americans are not hugely comfortable with and I think, unfortunately, we're at the point where people see this as a specific data breach with Cambridge Analytica. I really see this as a symptom of a much larger problem and that much larger problem is the fact that we've built this whole economy on not charging people for the goods and services they use, but instead advertising to them as a way of making their revenues.
In 2014 you said you thought it was not too late to repent for the sin of making the internet dependent on advertising, adding that it's not too late to build a better web without ads. Are you saying then that does not apply today? Can the internet be saved from advertising in this manner or is it too late?
I don't think it's too late. I actually think we've seen a lot of promising developments. The fact that Netflix has emerged as a highly successful internet property with a subscription model should be very good news for a lot of people out there. It's a little troubling that we're willing to pay for subscription models for our entertainment, but we're not willing to pay for it for our social interactions for email. I think a great first step that Facebook and Google and others could take is offer subscription-based access to their services in exchange for some hard and fast and auditable guarantees that they're not keeping personally identifiable or tracking information on us.
I think in the long run for things like supporting journalism online, we're going to have to find some way to move out of this display advertising model and much closer to a subscription model, probably where a lot of sites are getting together and sharing subscription revenues so that we're not just locked into two or three services going forward.
If Facebook uses these models and protects user data, will it be as profitable as it has been?
No I don't think so. I think part of this is that Facebook has been hugely profitable but in a way that isn't sustainable for them in the long term. And I think what's likely to happen is either Facebook is going to continue doing what it's doing and is either going to face a major consumer revolt or some really strong regulatory scrutiny. Or maybe they will change pace but probably in change in pace, they will slow down their revenue growth significantly as they start moving to some different business models.
So is there anything that you want to ask or tell Mark Zuckerberg today? If you were there, what would you say to him?
I think I would tell him that while this has been a rough month or so, this is overdue for Facebook and that it's time for Facebook to really face up to the fact that we love it, but don't love the business model and the practices behind that, and that he needs to do the hard work of finding a better way.
I have to ask this question: Whatever Zuckerberg tells politicians, whatever pledges or promises he makes, whatever mea culpas he makes, should he be believed? I ask that question in this context — in the Atlantic earlier this year, you wrote whatever Zuckerberg says about human community or his legacy, his company is acting in its own interests and against the public good. Is that at play today? Can he be believed?
I think Zuckerberg has a lot of work today in persuading people that our interests and his interest are the same thing. I think right now there's a real sense that Zuckerberg is trying to save his skin and to get out of a very tough situation. I would really love to see evidence that he is working hard to make sure that Facebook is a net positive for him and society. But I haven't seen a ton of evidence of that yet.
This segment aired on April 10, 2018.
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