Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.
As someone with a longstanding interest in tech-infused power—I even wrote a book on the subject several years ago, called Control Shift—I’ve been watching the latest Facebook omnishambles with a gnawing feeling inside. The thing that’s bugging me is that I can’t see any obvious solution to the problems highlighted by whistleblower Frances Haugen and the many ex-internal critics that preceded her.
It is clear that something must be done. With Facebook remaining entirely under the control of Mark Zuckerberg, who is arguably the source of the rot, it’s too late to fall back on any notion that the company will voluntarily change its ways. It’s also too late to wait for the market to fix Facebook before it does a lot more damage to society; while younger people are turning to TikTok, Facebook remains central to the lives of billions, and will remain so for a long time yet.
That leaves regulation. As regular readers will have gleaned, I am no opponent of this concept, as long as it is well crafted and properly enforced. In the case of Facebook, though, the rules that are on the table don’t feel like they would entirely fix the problem.
That’s not to say they won’t help. As the New York Times reported Wednesday, Haugen has been talking to European lawmakers who are already steering new Big-Tech-crackdown bills through the legislative process, and what she has to say will surely bolster their case as they do so. Of particular relevance is the new Digital Services Act, which will force the likes of Facebook to scrub their platforms of illegal content, such as hate speech, and to be transparent about how they moderate content. Transparency would represent a major advance—for one thing, it could make future whistleblowing less necessary.
Less directly relevant, but perhaps more impactful, is the Digital Markets Act that is also under discussion. This would force a “gatekeeper” such as Facebook to allow interoperability with rival platforms, theoretically making it easier for people to leave. Again, that would be great for both users and innovation, while limiting Facebook’s ability to further entrench its position. Haugen’s testimony makes it less likely that these measures will be watered down, and it might even lead to their strengthening.
However, the most disturbing elements of Facebook’s activities, as revealed by Haugen and others, are essentially moral failings: being aware of Instagram’s damaging effects on the mental health of young people but rather prioritizing profit; allowing the spread of misinformation that costs lives in the context of the pandemic; being a tool of genocide in Myanmar. These are awful, rotten things, but their illegality isn’t so easy to pin down. And that makes them hard to regulate in a fair, consistent way that is compatible with free expression.
What’s more, not all these failings are exclusive to Facebook. TikTok is also a cesspit of hate speech. YouTube’s algorithms are also conducive to radicalization (though we should be wary of painting that picture with too broad a brush). If Facebook’s platforms were to be forcibly separated, there’s nothing to suggest they wouldn’t continue being malevolent, as Haugen herself has argued.
Facebook deserves and ought to be hit with tough new regulations, not least so we can better understand what it is doing to us, and how. But its worst flaws are ultimately down to profit-driven exploitation of the most dangerous aspects of online existence, in particular the tendency toward filter bubbles and the pressure on people to live life as a marketable package. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can simply regulate the poisons of polarization, hatred and self-loathing out of our societies. We need different tools for that.
The Senate has voted to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, by $480 billion, into early December. So, no immediate default crisis for the market, but there may still be one coming up pretty soon. Wall Street Journal
Beijing appears to have done a temporary U-turn on its environmental plans, ordering coal miners to dig more as the country confronts a serious power crisis. The power shortage has partly been down to China's energy transition—the government has been trying to shun coal so as to cut carbon emissions—but it seems the risk to winter heating and electricity demands is too great. Financial Times
Today's the day that the new global tax deal might be finalized, and previous holdouts Ireland and Estonia are now on board. Ireland's change of stance on the 15% tax floor is particularly notable, given its importance as a 12.5%-charging base for many multinationals. Fortune
Experts warn that Merck's COVID-19 antiviral treatment may need to be combined with other drugs in order to "delay the onset" of evolved resistance by the virus. Merck says the chance of resistant mutations of the virus is low. Fortune
AROUND THE WATER COOLER
The Nobel Peace Prize has this year been awarded to journalists Maria Ressa (of Rappler in the Philippines) and Dmitry Muratov (of Novaja Gazeta in Russia). From the Norwegian Nobel Committee: "Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda. The Norwegian Nobel Committee is convinced that freedom of expression and freedom of information help to ensure an informed public. These rights are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict." Fortune
Only shortages of chips and ships can slow down Tesla's sales growth, CEO Elon Musk has claimed. Growth exceeded 50% in the last year. "We’ve had a fantastic year, we had record vehicle deliveries," Musk said. "It looks like we have a good chance of maintaining that. Basically, if we can get the chips we can do it. Hopefully this chip shortage will alleviate soon but I feel confident of being able to maintain something like at least above 50% for quite a while." Fortune
Singapore has an 83% vaccination rate, but it's reinstating restrictions rather than opening up further. Some say the caution is excessive, but finance minister Lawrence Wong says it's a lesson for "COVID-naïve societies" that haven't had big outbreaks and need to prepare for large waves of infections: "In Singapore, we think that you cannot just rely on vaccines alone during this intermediate phase…And that’s why we do not plan an approach where we reopen in a big bang manner, and just declare freedom." New York Times
Soros and Bitcoin
One of George Soros's key lieutenants, Dawn Fitzpatrick, disclosed Soros Fund Management's ownership of "some" cryptocurrency, but "not a lot." This wild display of enthusiasm sent Bitcoin's value soaring by almost 10%. Fortune
This edition of CEO Daily was edited by David Meyer.
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