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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Facebook's "Human Rights" Initiative Is a Giant Pile of Bullshit

Posted By on Tue, Aug 27, 2013 at 11:20 AM


Western-style capitalism has arrived at a very strange place. Image-consciousness has become such a powerful force that it's the first thing many companies think of whenever they consider a new initiative -- not the initiative itself, but how that initiative will be perceived.

That's why when Mark Zuckerberg announced his project to connect people in developing countries to the Internet, he felt compelled to make it sound like a charity run by an NGO, complete with the ".org" domain and all kinds of flowery language about "human rights" and so forth.

But of course, is all about money -- for Facebook, and for the handset makers and other tech companies that are involved (Ericsson, MediaTek, Nokia, Opera, Qualcomm, and Samsung.)

More people connected to the Internet means more people using those companies' products and services. For Facebook, it means finding new areas of growth, since growth is stagnant in its current markets: pretty much everybody in North America who might want to have a Facebook account already has one. Hence Zuckerberg's desire to get "the next 5 billion people" online.

But the announcement, in being framed as a cause to help the disenfranchised, amounted to a giant pile of bullshit, and hence drew all kinds of cynical responses. And rightly so -- not because Facebook is seeking new sources of revenue, but because it's pretending it's doing something more noble. A lot of people think that business -- especially big business -- is inherently evil, so companies like Facebook often feel they have to pretend their chief aim isn't to pursue profits, but rather to save the world.

What they forget is that the negative attitudes toward business are driven not so much by the pursuit of profits, but by the constant bullshit. It's a vicious circle: companies lie to protect or enhance their "image," which makes people more cynical about them, which in turn makes them lie more, which makes people despise them more.

Zuckerberg's "manifesto" (as it has been dubbed) announcing the initiative starts out by presenting Internet connectivity as a "human right." Which, maybe it is, but if we're at the point where human rights are defined and bestowed by the likes of Facebook, we're in big trouble.

The manifesto's opening paragraph only makes things worse:

For almost ten years, Facebook has been on a mission to make the world more open and connected. Today we connect more than 1.15 billion people each month, but as we started thinking about connecting the next 5 billion, we realized something important: the vast majority of people in the world don't have access to the internet.

Facebook's chief mission is actually to get as many people as possible to create Facebook profiles and use the service as much as possible, and to put ads in front of them and make money. Nowhere in Zuckerberg's statement is this mentioned. Making "the world more open and connected" is not Facebook's goal -- it's a method for achieving its goal, and, perhaps, is a byproduct of those efforts.

Accompanying the announcement was a video, set to emotion-stirring piano music, depicting people around the world working, playing, and interacting with each other (all offline, by the way), accompanied by a speech where John F. Kennedy calling for "a new context for world discussions (as Alexis Madrigal noted at the Atlantic, the speech had to be heavily edited since much of it actually runs counter to what Facebook's marketing message is.)

Everybody saw right through all the bullshit, as can be seen both in comments sections and in opinion pieces. Which raises the question of why companies continue to do this kind of thing. If Facebook had come out and said, "This will make us money, while also helping people around the world get hooked into the Internet," it probably would have drawn a lot less criticism. It might even have drawn applause -- both from people concerned about developing countries and from stockholders.

But Zuck's sticking to his guns. Deep in a Q&A with Wired, he is asked whether is simply "a self-interested means for Facebook to build its user base." He answered that "theoretically, we do benefit from this." But, he said, "that criticism is kind of crazy" because Facebook's current, developed-world users "have way, way more money than the next 6 billion people combined." And, he said, if Facebook "wanted to focus on just making money, the right strategy for us would be to focus solely on the developed countries and the people already on Facebook, increasing their engagement rather than having these other folks join."

Facebook is of course continuously working to extract more value from its existing user base by increasing engagement and so on. His presentation of this as a zero-sum game -- that the company must choose to either find growth in developing countries or try to make more money from its current, developed-world users -- is simply a lie, and of course he knows it.

Capitalism gets a bad rap for all kinds of good reasons, but capitalism is also what brought the world into modernity. It feeds hungry people and provides them with housing, energy, and clothes (and computers, and the Internet). The trick isn't to pretend that companies aren't self-interested, but to make it clear that corporate self-interest can also serve the interests of others, and society as a whole, as long as corporate power is held in check.

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Dan Mitchell


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