Insights Michael Baker

Facebook’s King John needs a digital Magna Carta

Mark Zuckerberg’s seemingly divine right to rule was beset on all sides this week, as a revolt of political and media barons sought to bring him back down to earth.

King Zuck is still reeling 😵 after a sensational New York Times expose on claims Facebook paid a research firm to discredit activist protestors, in part by linking them to liberal financier George Soros. This week, the problems piled up:

  • Lawmakers from five continents grilled executives next to a vacant chair bearing Zuckerberg’s name over the platform’s role in undermining democracy 😨.
  • In San Francisco, politicians lobbied to remove Zuckerberg’s name from a children’s hospital, where his wife trained and which was the beneficiary of a $75m donation from couple’s philanthropic foundation 😰.
  • WhatsApp’s chief business officer, the messenger service bought by Facebook in 2014, quit the firm praising the “small set of talented people” he worked with, omitting Zuckerberg from the list 😤.
  • A former employee’s resignation letter saying the company “has a problem with black people” was reported worldwide 😭.

Response? Facebook continues to suggest that fixes to the platform will solve the company’s crisis of trust. In an interview with CNN, a red-eyed and brittle Zuckerberg argued that new systems for flagging and reporting content will do the job. He slapped down suggestions that his own power might be curbed saying there were “no plans” to split his chief executive and chairman roles.

Impact? Zuckerberg’s invention undermines the command-and-control media model and with it, traditional power bases. And although he unleashed the power of publishing to Facebook users, Zuckerberg owns and controls the infrastructure. This is not an argument about technical fixes but untrammelled, unchecked and unaccountable power in one company and one man. Without a plan to deal with those concerns, the rebellion the firm faces will intensify.

What could be done differently? Governance of Facebook starts and ends with Mark Zuckerberg. His shares carry voting rights ten times that other stock classes and he serves as chief executive and chairman. A more independently-minded board might help develop answers the firm needs.

Facebook is threatened with regulation or break-up. Giving up some of his own power within the firm might create space for new ideas and approaches that can placate his enemies within and without. While the media barons say Facebook should be treated as a publisher – like them – the reality is that there is a multitude of ways to regulate the platform. Arguably, more damaging to Facebook would be competition authorities forcing the company to pay users for their data or beefing up users’ ability to transfer to other providers, like a current account or energy supply. While there are no alternative platforms yet, such a move might spur serious competition.

If King Zuck wants to hold on to his throne and empire, he’ll need to give a little away. A digital Magna Carta might be preferable to the destruction wrought in a bloody revolution.