This article will not rehash the Mark Zuckerberg story about the 33-year-old genius who invented Facebook, the immense wealth he acquired and what he did with it.
What concerns us here is how he was summoned to testify before the US Congress in connection with a case that has perplexed lawmakers in the US and elsewhere and that has thrown into relief the question of how to regulate the ubiquitous products of modern technology and the behaviours connected with them.
In the science of revolutions and change, numerous quantitative changes in rapid succession can give rise to qualitative changes called by some “revolutionary” and by others merely “radical”.
But regardless of the term we use, what counts is what we do with it, especially when a new phenomenon becomes widespread, at which point the matter becomes more complex as it can be used both good and evil purposes.
When Zuckerberg first unveiled Facebook, he had no idea that it would eventually extend to billions of people around the world. Nor did he have a way of fathoming the intentions of all those billions. All he was interested in at the outset was a communications platform for a set of his friends.
Eventually it expanded to include other sets of friends, then other groups of people in the same country and then in other countries.
As the circles continued to expand and multiply, the whole world became encompassed in a single box in which information on goods and people accumulated.
It also became a vast market for the exchange of mutual interests, as well as mutual feelings. It generated the largest advertising platform mankind had ever known.
When Zuckerberg entered the House of Representatives and the Senate to testify in a specific case, the subject ultimately proved to be more comprehensive than anyone had expected: how are societies to handle modern modernism?
“Modernism”, conventionally, dates back a couple of centuries or so. It was set into motion by the first and second industrial revolutions and the introduction of the telegraph, radio, cinema, automobile and airplane.
Everything changed, from transport to communications, and from modes of warfare to hairdos. Laws and regulations also experienced a revolution in their own right, giving rise to new types of taxes as well as to laws to protect privacy.
Privacy laws were originally conceived so that a person could communicate with his/her lover without others eavesdropping.
But when spies and other evil doers began to take advantage of privacy, it became necessary to introduce eavesdropping regulated by law.
Contemporary modernism once again brought the world face-to-face with the need to regulate.
The current phase began with the personal computer. As for the big, non-personal computer, it began during World War II with Alan Turing.
Until the 1970s, it remained a monopoly of a handful of huge companies, mostly IBM, and served the purposes of major business firms and major espionage agencies.
The personal computer ushered in a totally different phenomenon. Every individual could own one.
Geniuses and madmen such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs developed and expanded it into today’s desktops, laptops, notebooks and, also, the mobile phones that are available to every person on the planet.
Zuckerberg and Facebook were natural evolutions from the personal computer and its offshoots. Communications technology has become the machinery for revolutions, for publicity targeting a worldwide market and for reaping inconceivable fortunes.
Yet, no one knows precisely how to tax it. Indeed, is the virtual even taxable? All of this has generated new issues surrounding the question of regulating contemporary modernism.
But what brought Zuckerberg to the stairs of Congress was the fact that the instrument that he created and profited from, may have served to influence the outcome of the US presidential elections in 2016.
The existence of cyber warfare is no longer a secret. It has moved from the realm of the probable to the realm of the actual, not just as an instrument that can alter the course of wars but also as a threat to the democratic process in the US and other democratic countries.
Facebook comes into play, here, because it contains such a huge quantity of data which is supplied by subscribers, often just when opening an account. The information includes names, addresses and sometimes bank account numbers.
Theoretically, all this information is guarded by privacy laws. When people open a Facebook account, they are required to tick a box agreeing to terms and conditions, some of which pertain to the protection of their personal information.
Most of the time, people do not even read these agreements that, in reality, do not prohibit the provision of this data to third parties for commercial use.
Enter Cambridge Analytica. The British-based political consulting firm obtained the personal data of more than 50 million Americans who happened to live in the states that were critical to determining the outcome of the 2016 presidential elections.
This was no coincidence. There was a Russian nudge involved here. As to whether that nudge came from the Russian government or from Putin personally or from one of Moscow’s intelligence agencies, it is impossible to say.
What we do know is that the British firm sent emails to the addresses it harvested from Facebook in order to influence the recipients’ behaviour at the polls.
Facebook had moved from being a communications network and advertising platform to being a cog in the “game of nations”.
Zuckerberg, himself, could never have predicted that his amazing invention would lead to this precarious point in relations between world powers and become embroiled in US and other electoral processes, including the Brexit referendum.
In his testimony before Congress, Zuckerberg admitted to not having done enough to prevent Facebook from being used for harm. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry.
I started Facebook, I run it and I’m responsible for what happens here.” His statement reflected a considerable degree of modesty, contrition and a willingness to cooperate with Congress in order to regulate what he felt was unregulable.
Also, in the course of his testimony, he said that his company had discovered accounts believed to belong to “APT28”, a group linked to Russian military intelligence services that created fake personas that were used to seed stolen information to journalists.
“After the election, we continued to investigate and learn more about these new threats.” he said.
“What we found was that bad actors had used coordinated networks of fake accounts to interfere in the election: promoting or attacking specific candidates and causes, creating distrust in political institutions, or simply spreading confusion.”
Modern modernism has reached a point where it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to how it can be manipulated to distort the truth and undermine the laws and regulations that govern modern life. Can this be allowed to continue without destroying this life and modernism?
This is the greatest dilemma of mankind today, and not just Mark Zuckerberg.
The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly