How to reconcile our fractured relationship with Big Tech

Now that the season of reconciliation is over, can we get back to hard reckonings? Our relationship with the big technology companies, for one, is due some examination.

When former UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg takes up his new role as head of communications at Facebook, his first act will be to face up to some hard truths that have been avoided for far too long.

The social media company’s taciturn founder, Mark Zuckerberg, may have taken the kind of “listening tour” of America often made by US presidential hopefuls, but he has always lacked the conventional attributes of a president. However, one female US media chief executive told me that Facebook’s personable chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, could certainly have had a shot at it, were it not for her failure to confront the company’s crisis over fake news and improper data sharing.

In hindsight — the only reliable judge — Facebook should have laid out the terms of its relationship with users at the start. It is a simple rule of mainstream journalism that there is no such thing as a free lunch (and since Facebook wiped out journalism’s profits, rarely any such thing as a lunch). Facebook connects you to people all over the world, in a spirit of revelation and exhibition. It will not charge you money for this. You will pay for it instead with your privacy. This marvellous relationship has a Faustian element.

This has always seemed obvious to me, which is why I have never posted anything on Facebook. That may be because I have experience of displaced costs. When I edited the London Evening Standard, I had a ready response when people said they liked the platform because it was free: “Not free, just free to you. It is paid for by advertising.” Maybe Facebook could have made the nature of that transaction clearer. The Evening Standard offered its readers the service of third-party journalism. It took time for users of Facebook to recognise that they were the product.

The directness of the relationship is startling. As newspapers took the hit on advertising, I went to visit Facebook’s offices to see if we could find a means of partnership — i.e. could they give us some money back? I was told that it did not work like that, but I could get some advice on polishing my digital profile. I went on to join the BBC, where my digital profile seems to take care of itself.

The era of something for nothing, noble intentions, fancy rhetoric, a lack of small print, may be drawing to a close. No more false promises. It looks now like an astonishing lack of foresight for Facebook to preach total inclusivity then show surprise when videos of beheadings turned up on its site alongside kittens. Or to celebrate the democracy of news without recognising the new unaccountable power bases. Politico’s analysis of the new populist websites is chilling for those in media still playing by old rules. “Who do you ring?” asks an official from 10 Downing Street. “You don’t know who these people are.”

Facebook’s appeal was that it was outside regulation, but it is too big now to play the ingénue entrepreneur. It must face the same regulation as the unfashionable old manufacturing companies. Organisations that think rules are for little people need watching by the little people.

Facebook is a huge corporation behaving as though it is a movement. As a corporation, it is now scrambling to get to know its customers. It should flash up its terms and conditions in the same way as financial services do. I have not joined Facebook, but I know the deal with Google Maps. The service is so useful to me that I have decided it is worth being spied upon. I accept the contract.

Transparency is now vital for democracy and security. The UK chief of the defence staff, General Nick Carter, made a speech recently about money and influence in the cybersphere being a form of warfare. We must know who we are dealing with. Facebook is a publisher, just as Amazon is a retailer, Uber is a ride service, and Brexit is more complex than it looks. There comes a moment when entrepreneurs and buccaneers and politicians alike must confront process. No business is an island or even an iCloud. Reconciliation first needs truth.

The writer is the editor of Radio 4’s Today programme


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