Modern Leviathans Pt. II: Accountability

I discussed the growing problems related to privacy engendered by so much personal information being amassed by Facebook and Amazon in the first part of this blog. I would now like to turn my attention to another area of concern related to these technology giants – accountability.

Let’s start with Facebook. With his wide eyes and soup bowl haircut, Mark Zuckerberg is one of those rare guys who perennially looks like a kid who just stepped out of an episode of Leave it to Beaver, but his innocent appearance belies the calculating businessman beneath. Zuckerberg started Facebook while he was at Harvard studying computer science and psychology. The site was called FaceMash in its original iteration, and was a way for men on campus to rate the attractiveness of female co-eds. He eventually had to take the site down and apologize to women’s groups who were rightfully appalled by a platform who’s sole purpose was to objectify and rank them.

This failure however did not deter Zuckerberg who, heartened by the popularity of the site, tweaked it to allow for users to have control over what they posted and who they befriended, and Facebook as we know it was born. Facebook has became a world-wide phenomenon over the past 15 years with about 2.5 billion users as I write – yes, that’s “billion” with a “b”. The tremendous growth of this technology is unprecedented, and the ability for mass communication it facilitates is unknown in the annals of human history.

One might think that this free-flow of information would perpetuate a coming together of the human family, and in many ways it has – successful “Go Fund Me” campaigns speak to widespread generosity, and I regularly see posts highlighting people demonstrating kindness and compassion, often towards complete strangers or others they’ve just met. Yet there is another, darker side to such unbridled communication. I previously mentioned the insidious ways Cambridge Analytica and various Russian hackers interfered in the last U.S. election, but a lesser known story is how unchecked hate speech and propaganda on Facebook led directly to the genocide and diaspora of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

I had heard a little bit about this before watching the Frontline special, but the program made it much more clear how Facebook’s lack of due diligence allowed for this human tragedy. At one point the reporter interviewed David Madden, an Australian ex-pat who has lived in Myanmar since 2012. Madden had gone on his own dime not once, but twice to Facebook’s California headquarters to make them aware of their part in the growing violence against the Rohingya people as the hatred and vitriol which prompted the massacre was being communicated on Facebook by rabid Buddhist monks and the Myanmar military. The first time he went to California, Facebook executives expressed shock and concern and said they would monitor Myanmar postings more closely in future, taking down hate speech and incitements to violence as soon as they appeared. Two years later they had still done virtually nothing to rectify the situation which was getting exponentially worse by the day, so Madden went back to California, received the same platitudes, and by the end of that year (2017) tens of thousands of Rohingya people had been killed, their properties looted and destroyed, and the survivors’ exodus from Myanmar constituted the biggest Asian migration since the Viet Nam war.

The Facebook executives who spoke on Frontline about the Myanmar situation all gave some form of the following explanation,

“We tend to be overly optimistic here at Facebook and our mandate is to bring people closer together. That’s why it takes us so long to react to negative situations.”

So let me get this straight – you think you’re off the hook because your executives innocently bat their eyelashes and use their faith in humanity as an excuse for ignoring posts which encouraged and instigated the deaths and displacement of tens of thousands of people, despite knowing about the problem years before it exploded? All I can say to that is – you’re right. There are no tangible repercussions for the clear, devastating failures of Facebook because there are no laws regulating it. They are, after all, simply a platform for communication, so how can they reasonably be held responsible for bad situations which arise because of things people post? Remember, the flames of hatred in Rwanda which led to the Tutsi genocide were fanned by radio broadcasts, but no one thought of holding the radio industry responsible, let alone of punishing it or changing the way it is regulated.

The ways in which Amazon manages to avoid accountability are much more obvious, and therefore (one would think) easier to legislate against. For example, there is a disclaimer in their Terms of Agreement which explicitly relieves Amazon of all responsibility related to items they sell for third parties. In other words, they cannot be sued for any gross misrepresentations perpetuated by the manufacturers of products on their site (including counterfeit merchandise), nor can they be held responsible for any damages a product might cause. Frontline showed footage of toys covered in lead paint with no parental warning, hoverboards with minds of their own, and my personal favourite, a blowdryer that shoots flames. Sure it would dry your hair really fast, but…

Amazon is not legally responsible for the products it sells, nor is it being held accountable for some very shady business practices. For example, the head of a smallish publishing house (I’ll call him Mr. K because I don’t remember his name and can’t find it anywhere on line), spoke to Frontline about his professional relationship with Amazon. The company initially approached Mr. K offering to sell his books on their site for a small percentage of his returns, and he of course jumped at the opportunity. As sales started to multiply, Mr. K hired more authors and upped production, and that’s when he got a most unexpected call from his Amazon contact telling him the company now wanted 4% more of his profits. Mr. K balked at the idea, saying that just isn’t how publishing works. The very next day, the “buy” buttons attached to his books on Amazon were disabled, leaving him no choice but to accede to its demand. It seems to me that this is exactly the sort of strong arm tactic which used to be handled by large men with crooked noses and baseball bats – in other words, do it our way or else!

Then there is the way Amazon treats its employees. The company owns massive warehouses called “fulfillment centres” in which thousands of people frantically toil to ensure you get your new coffee maker the very next day as promised. There have been many reports over the years of terrible working conditions in these buildings, with Frontline adding more voices to the discussion by interviewing several former workers who verified yet again how bad the situation is. When the reporter spoke to an Amazon executive about their terrible safety record, he replied something like,

“We have very stringent safety standards in all of our fulfillment centres.”

The former employees on the program verified that this is the case, but what the executive fails to mention is that each worker must meet a daily quota, and the only way to do that is by largely ignoring the safety standards. You can protect yourself or you can keep your job – it is impossible to do both.

I honestly don’t know what the answer is when it comes to the questionable practices of technology giants like those in this article as well as Microsoft, Apple and Google. The fact is that ethics and legislation have simply not kept pace with new forms of commerce, communication, and the collection of personal data, nor with changes technology has wrought in other professions which intimately impact our daily lives like the law and medicine. The EU, and Canada to a lesser extent, has enacted some laws concerning the collection of personal information; who owns it, and how far tech companies can use and disseminate it. This is a good start, but as long as these tech giants are headquartered in the U.S. where money has such a big hand in elections and which legislation gets passed, I fear that these modern leviathans will continue to operate largely unchecked.

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