'Call their bluff': Shut down social media platforms, ex-Facebook adviser urges

A former Facebook adviser is urging governments around the world to shut down social media platforms until they can be reformed.

“If your goals are to protect democracy and personal liberty, you have to be bold. You have to force a radical transformation of the business model of internet platforms,” venture capitalist Roger McNamee told the House of Commons privacy and ethics committee Tuesday morning.

“At the end of the day, though, the most effective path to reform would be to shut down the platforms at least temporarily …. Any country can go first. The platforms have left you no choice. The time has come to call their bluff.”

This week, Canadian MPs on the committee are being joined by politicians from a handful of countries around the world — including the U.K., Ireland, France and Germany — in trying to figure out what should and can be done to protect citizens’ privacy online and curb the spread of disinformation.

In his testimony, McNamee pointed to Sri Lanka, where authorities turned off the taps on most social media after last month’s Easter Sunday attacks on churches and hotels killed hundreds of people.

The Sri Lankan government’s official news portal said the actions, which included blocking Facebook and its WhatsApp and Instagram services, were needed to stop false news reports online.

“The people at Google and Facebook are not evil,” said McNamee, an early investor in Facebook.

“They are the products of an American business culture with few rules, where misbehaviour seldom results in punishment. Smart people take what they can get and tell themselves they earned it. They feel entitled. Consequences are someone else’s problem.”

He added that “companies with responsible business models will emerge overnight to fill the void.”

Dire warnings

McNamee, who wrote Zucked: Waking Up to the Facebook Catastrophe, said “at a minimum” countries should ban the platforms’ ability to perform web tracking, scan emails and documents and crack down on surveillance.

Centre for International Governance Innovation head Jim Balsillie, who became famous as one of the founders of Blackberry maker Research in Motion, also had dire words for the committee.

“Technology is disrupting governance and if left unchecked could render liberal democracy obsolete,” he said.

“Data is not the new oil – it’s the new plutonium: amazingly powerful, dangerous when it spreads, difficult to clean up and with serious consequences when improperly used.”  

Later Tuesday morning, representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google were scheduled to be in the hot seat.

On Monday, just hours before the committee started, Facebook announced it will take down accounts that try to interfere with the upcoming Canadian election and make those attempts public. 

Google and Microsoft also announced that they support a Canadian initiative to protect the integrity of the election this fall — including removing hoax accounts and fake content.

Twitter had not signed on as of Tuesday morning.

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