Zuckerberg’s Iceberg

Mark Warner, top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, is squeezing Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. “I think that we’re still at the tip of the iceberg,” Warner said, speaking of Russia’s use of Facebook to influence the 2016 presidential campaign. “The fact is,” Warner continued, “I don’t think Facebook has put the resources, the time,” into probing the matter. “I think there’s a lot more” the company can do.

The metaphor – “the tip of the iceberg” – is Warner’s shot across Facebook’s bow. One of the Senate’s most prominent members has made it clear: none of the major tech companies will be immune any longer from public scrutiny. To the contrary – as special counsel Robert Mueller would similarly testify – these companies are prime targets in any Russia related investigation. (Because Mueller was able to secure a search warrant, he now has in hand all Russia-linked ads that ran on Facebook in the months leading up to the election.)

At first Facebook flatly denied any involvement in the campaign. Moreover, it had rejected the Clinton campaign’s contemporaneous request that it delve into the matter. In fact, Zuckerberg himself went on record as saying that the very idea that Facebook had any political impact at all was “pretty crazy.” Well, not exactly.

The real issue though is a larger one – it goes beyond Facebook. The real issue is, as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo recently put it, that the most “glaring and underappreciated fact of internet-age capitalism,” is that all of us are now in “inescapable thrall” to the “Frightful Five” –  that is, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Alphabet. Ironically, until now, all five of these companies were virtually immune from public criticism, at least in the US. To the contrary, as Maya Kosoff wrote in Vanity Fair, for years, they were the object of our admiration, “ensconced in a halo of good will” that mostly protected them from the sorts of anti-trust investigations and large fines that were being leveled against them in Europe. Founders and chief executive officers were similarly ensconced – in that “halo of good will.” Men such as Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Tim Cook have been far more admired for their extraordinary capacities than criticized for their inordinate overreach.

The times though “they are a-changin’”. Unsavory stories featuring one or another major tech company have started recently regularly to appear. (In the last 24 hours was this New York Times headline, “Google and Facebook Face Criticism for Ads Targeting Racist Sentiments.”) Additionally, is the climate in Washington, which is slowly starting to favor regulatory action. Prominent progressives have been critical of the major tech companies for some time. (Elizabeth Warren warned last year that companies such as Google and Amazon were “trying to snuff out competition.”) And now they are joined by Trump administration officials skeptical of behemoth tech companies that are usually perceived as left-leaning. Former White House aide Steve Bannon, for example, argued in favor of regulating Facebook and Google as public utilities.

For more than a decade no American leaders have been as powerful as those at the top of the Frightful Five. But in recent years they’ve been flying increasingly, perilously, close to the sun. Unless they get out in front of the recent headlines, they, like Icarus, are sure to get their wings clipped.

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