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Early Facebook investor to Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook should shut down and fix itself

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
Early Facebook investor Roger McNamee at the annual Collision tech conference in Toronto on Thursday. Source: Collision

Facebook (FB) should shut itself down temporarily, says early investor Roger McNamee.

An adviser to Zuckerberg during Facebook’s early years, McNamee said during a panel on Thursday at the Collision conference in Toronto that Facebook should shut itself down and change its business model of targeted advertising. Otherwise, the social network risks getting shut down by governments concerned about the spread of misinformation. Such a move would mirror the government of Sri Lanka’s temporary shut-down of social media platforms in April when a number of bombings killed nearly 300 people.

“The big danger we've got is that Facebook and Google have left governments with no choice but to do what Sri Lanka did the next time something goes bad,” McNamee argued on Thursday. “They have to shut the platforms down.”

McNamee’s last Facebook encounter

McNamee revealed during his onstage discussion on Thursday that the last time he had spoken with Zuckerberg and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was in 2016, nine days before the U.S. presidential election and weeks before the social network became entangled in accusations that it played a role in spreading misinformation that ultimately influenced the election.

According to the investor, he spent three months trying to convince Facebook management that its algorithms and business model were “allowing bad people to harm innocent people.”

McNamee originally offered his bold solution then: Temporarily shut down Facebook and reform the platform. Such a move, he contended, would be similar to what Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) did in 1982 when the pharmaceutical and consumer goods giant issued a massive recall of 31 million Tylenol bottles after Tylenol capsules, tampered and laced with potassium cyanide, killed seven people in the Chicago area. (Tylenol returned to store shelves nearly two months later, this time with tamper-proof packaging.)

“Instead their [Facebook’s] reaction was, ‘No, no, Roger, we're good,” McNamee recalled.

Since the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Facebook has been plagued by a number of scandals around data privacy, including the Cambridge Analytica controversy in March 2018, when it was revealed the voting profile firm exposed the information of up to 87 million Facebook users without their consent. The social network is also expected to pay a Federal Trade Commision fine of between $3 billion and $5 billion for privacy lapses. (Facebook wrote down $3 billion during its first-quarter 2019 earnings in anticipation of the fine.)

From advisor to critic

McNamee in the years since has become a vocal critic of Facebook, making the rounds with media and at conferences, and even writing a book published this February entitled, “Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe.” In it, McNamee called the social network a “a clear and present threat to democracy.” (“The book was an attempt to put what i knew in one place to elevate the conversation,” McNamee explained.)

And while Zuckerberg pledged in a blog post this March to move Facebook towards a “privacy-focused” platform that emphasizes elements like private interactions, encrypted messages and secure data storage, McNamee argues Facebook’s changes to date have been “cosmetic” and don’t get at the root problems.

“I would remind him [Zuckerberg] that he can be the hero in his own story, that he can do more good by changing the business model of Facebook than he can with 1,000 Chan Zuckerberg initiatives,” said McNamee, referring to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla’s four-year-old philanthropic investment group. “I mean, he can do the right thing. He can, again, be the hero in his own story, and I think Mark would like to do that. I just think he's surrounded at the moment by a culture and by people who don't give him that message.”

McNamee’s comments arrive two days after former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos recommended Zuckerberg step aside as the social network’s chief executive and hire a replacement like Microsoft President Brad Smith.

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