By Shoshana Zuboff
2 Jul 2019
In a BBC interview last week, Facebook’s vice-president, Nick Clegg, surprised viewers by calling for new “rules of the road” on privacy, data collection and other company practices that have attracted heavy criticism during the past year. “It’s not for private companies … to come up with those rules,” he insisted. “It is for democratic politicians in the democratic world to do so.”
Facebook’s response would be to adopt a “mature role”, not “shunning” but “advocating” the new rules. For a company that has fiercely resisted new laws, Clegg’s message aimed to persuade us that the page had turned. Yet his remarks sounded like Newspeak, as if to obscure ugly facts.
A few weeks earlier Facebook’s chiefs, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, snubbed a subpoena from the Canadian parliament to appear for questioning. Clegg then showcased Silicon Valley’s standard defence against the rule of law – warning that any restrictions resulting from “tech-lash” risked making it “almost impossible for tech to innovate properly”, and summoning the spectre of Chinese ascendance. “I can predict that … we will have tech domination from a country with wholly different sets of values.”
Both Facebook and Google have long relied on this misguided formula to shield them from law. In 2011, the former Google CEO Eric Schmidt warned that government overreach would foolishly constrain innovation, “We’ll move much faster than any government.”Then, in 2013, Google co-founder Larry Page complained that “old institutions like the law” impede the company’s freedom to “build really great things”. This rhetoric is a hand-me-down from another era when “Gilded Age” barons in the late-19th century United States insisted that there was no need for law when one had the “law of evolution”, the “laws of capital” and the “laws of industrial society”. As the historian David Nasaw put it, the millionaires preached that “democracy had its limits, beyond which voters and their elected representatives dared not trespass lest economic calamity befall the nation”.