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Zuckerberg Isn’t a King — He’s an Emperor

If Mark Zuckerberg wants to keep connecting people, he is going to have to start acting on his liberal philosophy, which will almost certainly come with economic costs.

Mark Zuckerberg finally acknowledged that Facebook looks less like a corporation and more like a government. He even appears to be acting on this new acceptance. Facebook recently announced an agreement with social scientists to develop new ethical frameworks for research and suggested the need for third parties to make the company’s most contentious normative calls. Admitting that he runs a quasi-government is renewing the claim that Zuckerberg is a king, running the nation-state Rebecca MacKinnon famously called “Facebookistan.”

Zuckerberg’s problem is that his company’s dominance across national borders makes him less like a king and more like an emperor. The contradictory ways Facebook deals with formal governments is leaving Zuckerberg vulnerable to attacks that ordinary monarchs can easily ignore. The standard struggles of running an empire are now Facebook’s existential threats.

People generally argue that Zuckerberg is the king of a nation-state for three complementary reasons. First, the company is so dominant in its industry that it de facto exercises control over the entire social media landscape, giving it sovereign-like control over its users. Second, the remarkable share structure of the publicly traded entity gives Zuckerberg a veto over any major decisions. With no real checks and balances from fellow shareholders, and only public opinion an occasional bulwark, Zuckerberg starts to rival France’s Sun King.

Finally, although technically subservient to rules of formal governments like the United States, Facebook is often left in complete control due to limited political will and the inability of regulators to keep up with technological innovation. Assuming Facebook is beyond government regulation, a key part of Silicon Valley mythology, is the most debatable aspect of Zuckerberg’s king status and is where the analogy starts falling apart.

Government Whims

Watching the recent congressional hearings, you could have easily forgotten that Zuckerberg’s company operates in a plethora of countries outside the United States, governed by their own rules and jurisdiction. In some cases, the company is free to do as it pleases, like in the Philippines or Indonesia, where Facebook is literally the internet and, in other instances, like with the European Union, Facebook alters its rules in line with government interests.

Although Facebook has repeatedly escaped American regulations, it is becoming further indebted to foreign government whims. While formally banned in just two countries, Facebook has been shut down or blocked in a range of jurisdictions, from Algeria to Bangladesh, which we would assume have limited leverage on the multi-billion-dollar behemoth. Most of these shut downs occur when Facebook inadvertently undercuts the ruling party. With the company’s giant global user base, it needs to bargain with governments over the rules of the platform to maintain access to consumers. These bargains, or what users see as “terms of service,” regulate what data can be collected, how much can be sent abroad and even the nature of what may be shared through the platform. The bargains generally vary by country.

Zuckerberg is certainly not bound by shareholders, and such raw control is a prerequisite for both kings and emperors. He does, however, rely on negotiating heterogeneous outcomes with governments in order to govern his far-flung, foreign subjects. Whether he likes it or not, Zuckerberg is engaging in a divide-and-rule strategy to maximize his company’s economic gains. In other words, he is following the fundamental form of empire, with Facebook as the hub, giving its local brokers (national governments), the spokes, discordant deals and quid-pro-quos to keep both parties content and in power.

When we shift from thinking of Facebook as a company, or a nation-state, to an empire, it highlights some of the unique challenges Zuckerberg faces. When speaking to American politicians or consumers, Facebook labels itself the bastion of liberal, enlightenment values; claiming openness and debate via the Facebook platform can cure us of all our ills. But its love for openness is regularly providing illiberal governments means to spread mass violence, like in Myanmar, while it famously surrendered masses of personal information to its ultimate overlord, the American security state. Not to mention the blatant contradiction of telling advertisers it is the holy grail of consumer control despite simultaneously denying its ability to influence voting decisions. What the company does, and how its platform is used, regularly contradicts its purported liberal values, and it’s struggling to keep the story straight.

In any imperial system, subjects and brokers value consistency, but governing often requires exceptions and strategic side payments. According to a host of academic work, one of the key threats to an emperor’s legitimacy comes from the details of these heterogeneous deals with local rulers becoming exposed. For Zuckerberg, exposure could lead his local brokers — national governments — to lose faith in the deals Facebook has already struck. As Alex Cooley and Dan Nexon wrote while studying the US’s informal military basing empire, “When audiences perceive central authorities as engaging in inconsistent practices they may come to view central authorities commitments as less credible or to believe that central authorities are actively committed to policies inconsistent with local preferences.”

Game Changer

When engaging in multi-vocal signaling, sending different messages depending on the audience — as Facebook has been forced to do — an imperial ruler eventually suffers costs for such hypocrisy. The United States tried to balance its international liberal agenda while negotiating military deals with autocratic regimes in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. This lead to the former kicking them out in fear of being assaulted by American values, giving the latter greater leverage to demand a hundred-fold increase in rent from the United States. Facebook’s existential angst stems from its hypocrisy becoming increasingly apparent, leading to a similar loss of control over its local brokers.

In the United States, the fact that Edward Snowden exposed mass government surveillance aided by America’s tech giants seems to have changed little, but nothing could be further from the truth in Europe. The European Union has always had stronger privacy regulation than its American counterparts due a series of historical struggles leading bureaucrats to build up substantial capacity for technological regulation. Just as Snowden released the surveillance treasure trove, the European Union was upgrading its privacy rules through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Many American companies considered the GDPR an opportunity to water down the regulations that had been hindering their European development. Hiring a battery of former EU regulators as their lobbyists, Silicon Valley was succeeding, until Edward Snowden changed the game.

As the GDPR moved into the public spotlight, European civil society, armed with the details of Facebook’s hypocrisy, was able to strike back. Using American corporate influence as their own rhetorical weapon in the lobbying fight, consumers advocates like Jan Albrecht turned the GDPR into a substantial set of gains for European consumers. The regulation includes increasing penalties for corporate data breaches, standardizing the rules for all EU countries, thereby preventing tech giants from evading rules by setting up shop in countries with weak regulators like Ireland, and even forcing all European data transferred outside the EU to be governed by the GDPR. Facebook’s bargain with one host, the US government, unraveled its deal with its other biggest local broker, the European Union.

As Henry Farrell and Abe Newman have repeatedly pointed out, the game hardly stopped with the GDPR. Hypocrisy keeps biting Facebook. The details of the surveillance operation were used by Austrian lawyer and privacy advocate Max Schrems to undo one of the key bargains that makes Facebook’s business model possible. Schrems argued that American companies handing over data to the US government was a breach of European law, violating the Safe Harbor agreement that governed EU-US data transfers. Companies and the courts are still dealing with the aftermath.

Safe Harbor was replaced by the so-called Privacy Shield, but Facebook’s behavior under the new stop-gap measure was also deemed illegal, this time in Irish courts. The measure was sent for review to the European Court of Justice, putting a core piece of Facebook’s business under threat. The key point is that, again, the asymmetric deals Facebook has with various governments are being weaponized by civil advocates to curb Zuckerberg’s extensive power.

Blatant Contradictions

Under American political fire, Zuckerberg announced that his company is going to adopt the GDPR for its US consumers. But only a few days later, reports surfaced that they are going to move the processing of African, Latin American and Middle Eastern consumer data from its current port in the EU to the United States. This would allow Facebook to avoid the new GDPR rules so that it can continue to exploit its less mobilized subjects. As consumers and civil society groups learn more about these blatant contradictions between Facebook’s image and practice, it is going to only increase the pressure on Facebook to choose between its values and profit.

Facebook has over 2 billion users worldwide, a large fraction of whom think the company is the internet. Its valuation, currently hovering around $500 billion, is larger than the GDP of most of the countries it operates in. Facebook’s size and geographical reach, and Zuckerberg’s power, cannot be underestimated, but governments are waking up and capitalizing on the chaos created by a company that believes in moving fast and breaking things with little regard for the consequences.

The New York Times recently detailed yet another abhorrent use of Facebook’s platform to incite conflict between religious groups in Sri Lanka. Its role in spreading violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar is tragic, and its (mis)use in the 2016 US presidential election barely needs repeating. Facebook is finally recognizing that the vision Zuckerberg had of a frictionless, connected world was at the very least remarkably flawed, and yet the company has done little to react to these well-documented abuses.

If it does react, just like any imperial power it risks being thrown out by the local brokers that are benefitting from inaction. If it doesn’t, civil society actors, be it in the afflicted countries, the EU or even in the United States, could rise up together. These stories are going to be shared through Facebook, only making the hypocrisy more visible. If Mark Zuckerberg wants to keep connecting people, he is going to have to start acting on his liberal philosophy, which will almost certainly come with economic costs. Facebook will need to renegotiate ties with, or even get kicked out by, some governments, but it is the only way to ensure the long-term viability of the empire.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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