TORONTO – The name of the Collision conference evokes unexpected but enlightening interactions between people. At this year’s edition of this conference, it could also refer to the reputation of certain large technology companies crashing into a wall.
And no large technology company took more hits here than Facebook. Speaker after speaker took the social network to task for its vast influence and inability to address such persistent problems as fake users – whom Facebook itself said Wednesday make up an estimated 5% of monthly active accounts.
"In a lot of ways, Facebook is too powerful,” summed up former Facebook chief information security officer Alex Stamos in a talk Tuesday with tech pundit Kara Swisher. (Yes, that’s a Facebook video link.)
Stamos urged governments to curb the ability of political actors to target individuals precisely using Facebook, citing not just Russian influence operations in the 2016 election but the Obama campaign’s groundbreaking social-media marketing in 2012 – ”probably the first U.S. election that was quote-unquote thrown by Facebook."
Stamos further suggested that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg hand over his role as CEO to a more seasoned outsider and named one candidate: Microsoft president Brad Smith, who has become an outspoken advocate for regulation of such technologies as facial-recognition software.
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Stamos, now a professor at Stanford University, also had a request for large tech companies in general: Stop compensating people with stock, which winds up letting Wall Street dictate employee incentives.
“Eighty-something percent of my compensation at Facebook was set by Wall Street,” he said of his time there.
But while Stamos allowed that breaking up Facebook – and forcing Google to divest YouTube – might be justified under antitrust grounds, that remedy wouldn’t stop disinformation campaigns.
"You can't solve climate change by breaking up ExxonMobil and making 10 ExxonMobils,” he said.
Other Collision speakers agreed about the problem of tech concentration. Sonos' CEO described the notion of win-win “coopetition” between smaller firms such as his and the tech giants as “Big Tech wins and you get to survive." Mozilla chief innovation officer Katharina Borchert commented that “unfortunately, the Internet is almost synonymous with a number of large companies."
Tech arrogance also got called out. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau said Monday night that "We can't just race forward into the future for a few with the tech brilliance we have in this room and sort of shrug at everyone who's being left behind.”
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Wednesday, Cisco chairman emeritus John Chambers said, "Silicon Valley made a terrible mistake in telling a large part of the U.S. 'get used to it.'"
But this conference, which drew an announced 25,711 attendees, mostly left regulatory or other remedies as an exercise for the spectator.
After denouncing the recent course of Facebook (and admitting that “my firm profited enormously” from its investments in that company), Elevation Partners co-founder Roger McNamee suggested that "Facebook and Google have left governments with no choice but to do what Sri Lanka did.”
Forcibly shutting down entire social networks as that country did after the Easter Sunday bombings would trample civil liberties on either side of the Atlantic.
Oculus virtual-reality founder Palmer Luckey, now CEO of the defense contractor Anduril Industries, threw cold water on the hope that tech founders would turn to what Chambers described as "capitalism with a social conscience."
"You will not be able to get rid of him,” Luckey said Wednesday of Zuckerberg, whom he said fired him after his funding of a pro-Donald Trump internet trolling operation in 2016 became public knowledge. "People should cope with that reality rather than believe that there is some way out of that situation."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: At Collision conference, Facebook and the rest of tech gets taken to task once again