With his newly released book, Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe ($28, Penguin Press), Roger McNamee—the venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook who mentored Mark Zuckerberg and recommended Sheryl Sandberg to the platform—has become an activist arguing for accountability and reform within an industry he has been part of since 1982. In 2017, McNamee went to Washington, and, here, he talks the dark side of tech, breaking only once to take what seems like a pretty important call—from a member of Congress.
You’ve been on a whirlwind book tour for Zucked. What’s been the reception for the book? ROGER MCNAMEE: Fantastic. The diversity of audiences has been thrilling: It’s parents looking to take care of children; it’s technologists afraid of what has happened in Silicon Valley; it’s grandparents afraid of what has happened to democracy; it’s college students wondering if there is some way they can be part of the solution. It gives me great hope.
What’s the story you set out to tell? RM: I use my journey of discovery to teach readers what they need to know about the dark side of internet platforms. Like James Stewart in Rear Window, I tell the story of things that made no sense to me on a platform I loved. Every couple of months, I’d see something new. In October 2016, I reached out to Mark and Sheryl with my fears that the business model and algorithms of Facebook were allowing bad actors to harm innocent people. At that time, I only saw issues of civil rights and democracy. It was before the 2016 election, and I did not anticipate Facebook would play a role.
What was their argument? RM: Mark and Sheryl were polite, but passed me to a colleague, Dan Rose, former vice president of partnerships for Facebook. Rose argued that Facebook was a platform not a media company and, as such, was not responsible for the actions of third parties. I argued that Facebook depended on trust. If the people who use the product lost trust in Facebook, the law would not protect them. For whatever reason, they chose not to take my warning seriously. And I don’t want to guess. I spent three months begging them to protect users.
Eventually you went to Washington. RM: I joined forces with Tristan Harris, the former design ethicist at Google, to share his message about how platforms like Facebook and Google manipulate user attention and create addiction. By combining persuasive technology with automated advertising tools that enable microtargeting, internet platforms inadvertently enabled bad actors to undermine democracy and public health. We wanted to protect the 2018 and 2020 elections from interference, which might come from anywhere. We could not find allies in tech, so we went to Washington in July 2017. Senators Mark Warner and Elizabeth Warren were the first to get it. In September 2017, we met a dozen other members of Congress, including Representative Adam Schiff.
Have we made a Faustian bargain with platforms like Facebook? RM: The platforms have not been honest with us. Lured by convenience, we made ourselves vulnerable.
And now? RM: We are being tracked everywhere. Our financial, location, health and online data is being hoovered up, traded and sold—generally without our knowledge and permission. Why is that even legal? Google, Facebook and others gather all that data to make behavioral predictions they can sell to marketers. They use filter bubbles and recommendation engines to make some predictions self-fulfilling. We are being manipulated. Is that what we want? All of this might be OK if everyone knew about it and consented to it in advance. Unfortunately, we didn’t know. The consent we gave was, at best, uninformed.
This issue might be the only thing Americans have in common right now. RM: The best way to bring the country together is to find common ground. This issue is as good as it gets. Companies like Facebook and Google are brilliant, but they have gone too far. Their economic success brought massive political power. Their code and their algorithms govern our lives more than the law. Nobody elected them. They’re not accountable. They may not mean to, but they are harming democracy, kids, privacy and innovation. To get well, we need to change incentives, regulate data gathering and use, and apply antitrust startups with benign business models. It doesn’t matter whether your flag is red or blue. This issue is red, white and blue.
What can Zuckerberg do? RM: I believe that the founders of Google and Facebook are one good night’s sleep away from an epiphany. They can do more good by reforming their companies than with a foundation. They have achieved everything. Now they can be heroes. Walking away from power and profit is hard, but they can do it.
Give us the good news, Roger. RM: Fixing this will be a huge business opportunity. The next big thing should be to return to technology that empowers the people who use it, what Steve Jobs called ‘bicycles for the mind.’
What’s happening with your music these days? Moonalice will not play much until I finish the book tour. After that, we’ll kick it back into gear. I miss the music, but it’s such a privilege to speak to people about Zucked. I have profited from the success of Facebook and Google, so I feel like I owe everybody my best effort to try to get things back on track.