- At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, some tech experts are embracing Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s comparison of Facebook to smoking .
- “The incentives to manipulate attention are all about preying on the weakest elements of human psychology,” Mark Zuckerberg’s former mentor Roger McNamee told Business Insider.
- McNamee and Jim Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media, think the time has come for tough regulation – and even a breakup of Facebook.
DAVOS, Switzerland – Nearly a year ago to the day, the tech billionaire Marc Benioff chose the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Switzerland to tear into Facebook.
Speaking with CNBC, the Salesforce CEO said Mark Zuckerberg’s social network should be regulated by US lawmakers with the same vigour as the cigarette industry.
It’s a theory he has since built on numerous times, perhaps most vividly in November, when he told the tech journalist Kara Swisher that Facebook was “the new cigarettes.”
“It’s addictive, it’s not good for you, there’s people trying to get you to use it that even you don’t understand what’s going on,” he said.
Since then, Facebook has continued to be used as a tool for democratic interference and has been at the center of giant data scandals, not least the Cambridge Analytica breach. And the people Benioff credits with helping him arrive at his opinion are more convinced than ever that Facebook is as bad for democracy as smoking is for health and that action is needed.
Jim Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media, which lobbies for better protections for children online, was one of the people Benioff spoke with before rounding on Facebook.
“We believe there are huge issues around addiction, attention, and distraction caused by social-media platforms,” he told Business Insider this week in Davos. “Last year was a tipping-point moment in the relationship between tech and global society.
“The emperor was shown to have no clothes – meaning Facebook. And Facebook and others were exposed for the fact that they committed assaults on our democratic institutions.”
Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who was also once a mentor to Zuckerberg, was another who discussed the tobacco analogy with Benioff.
“Marc Benioff has chosen to look at this through the lens of public health, which, in my opinion, is the exactly the right starting point,” he said.
“The incentives to manipulate attention are all about preying on the weakest elements of human psychology. It’s no longer enough just to know a lot about us – the goal now is to change what we think and what we do.”
Steyer added: “The cigarette comparison was awesome, in my opinion, because the average person gets it … There needs to a global conversation about this, and there needs to be common-sense regulation of the tech companies.”
A breakup as a proposed cure
The Common Sense Media CEO was involved in drawing up new privacy laws in California and was in Brussels last week to talk to lawmakers about the European privacy law GDPR and other tech regulation.
“Now people realise there has to be a balanced approach to tech,” he said. “The idea that they will protect the public interest and self-regulate is folly. You need a much more public-interest-orientated approach.”
McNamee thinks the power of companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon should be curbed. In a piece for Time magazine ahead of the release of his book next month, he suggested stopping them from making acquisitions and preventing data sharing between subsidiaries.
“The economy would benefit from breaking them up,” he added.
Steyer agreed. “Maybe they should be forced to divest of Instagram and Facebook,” he said, adding that a breakup “would not be a bad idea at all.”
Facebook declined to comment. Its chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, told the DLD conference in Munich on Sunday that Facebook was open to working with regulators and was striving to improve. “We need to stop abuse more quickly and we need to do better to protect people’s data,” she said. “We have acknowledged our mistakes.”