By Jeffrey Goldfarb
HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - For a business built on growing friendships, Facebook is making an astonishing number of enemies. Revelations by two newspapers that some 50 million of its user profiles were inappropriately harvested add to a growing list of outcries over the social network’s practices. It has come to the point where founder Mark Zuckerberg will have to prove somehow he is not in way over his head.
The 33-year old Harvard dropout has encountered doubters every step of the way since starting Facebook in his dorm room and building it into a juggernaut valued at $540 billion. The hubris accumulated from the achievements is now plain to see. Zuckerberg seems either oblivious to - or incapable of assuming - the responsibilities that come with running an enterprise of extraordinary political, cultural and social influence.
It is evident even in the company’s lame response to the latest imbroglio. The New York Times and Observer of London chronicled, with the help of a whistleblower, how political consultancy Cambridge Analytica exploited Facebook user information. Worse, they say Facebook knew about it and failed to alert customers. The tin-eared first lines of defense over such harrowing claims were to argue that what occurred was not technically a “data breach” and to belatedly suspend the firm’s account.
Responses from outside Facebook were notably, and deservedly, more severe. U.S. legislators called for investigations into the leaks. Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar demanded Zuckerberg appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on which she sits. A conservative British lawmaker called for him to testify in a parliamentary inquiry over Russian meddling in the UK referendum to leave the European Union. For over a year, Zuckerberg has been ducking such requests even as he embarked on a road trip across America last year to meet people in every state.
Facebook has abjectly failed to grasp the magnitude of its problems. It took Zuckerberg almost a year to apologize for his blithe 2016 comment that fake news posted across his website didn’t influence the U.S. election. In the meantime, there are mounting concerns over its online advertising power, handling of privacy matters and how much tax it pays in Europe. Ten years ago, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg to help turn his startup into a serious corporation. It may be time for more adult supervision.
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