Last week, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Sub-Committee held its hearing on Disinformation with Aaron Greenspan as the witness. Aaron is the founder, president, and CEO of Think Computer Corporation, an IT consulting service and the author of the book ‘Authoritas: One Student’s Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era’. Aaron who claims to have had the original idea for Facebook, has been a long standing critic of the social network.
In January this year, Aaron published a 75-page report, in which he states that fake accounts made up more than half of Facebook’s 2.2 billion users. He has also testified the same, in front of the UK Parliamentary Committee. He minced no words when he said Mark Zuckerberg is a liar, fraudster and unfit to be the CEO of Facebook.
Facebook differentiates between duplicated accounts and fake accounts. But Aaron considers “any account which is not in your name and you have a second account for whatever purpose, that account is ultimately a fake account”. He noticed the issue of fake accounts on Facebook last year, after which he did his own enquiry and found some “alarming” numbers.
At the end of 2017, Facebook claimed that “only 1% of their accounts are fake”. By their own definition, two weeks ago they have said that the number of “fake accounts have increased to 5%.” This means that in a span of two years, their estimate has increased fivefold. The second issue, Aaron highlights is that it’s “extremely unclear” how they have arrived at that estimate.
Two years ago, Facebook came up with a ‘Transparency portal’, due to public pressure. The transparency portal of Facebook aims at publishing “regular reports to give our community visibility into how we enforce policies, respond to data requests and protect intellectual property, while monitoring dynamics that limit access to Facebook products.”
Aaron states that he found “very difficult to reconcile the SEC filings of Facebook with the numbers from the transparency portal”. He says that the number of fake accounts published on the transparency portal of Facebook do not match with the SEC filings. This is the reason why he decided to do his own report and find out if the numbers from the “two sources of Facebook aligned” and has come to the conclusion that they “don’t”. Instead Aaron has arrived at a conditional conclusion that “around 30% of accounts on Facebook are fake”. He claims that Facebook always minimizes their numbers to make the problem look smaller than it is. Also he adds that “Based on my total use of the platform, the historical trend starting in 2006, when it was made public, up until the present, it seemed like it was safe that 50% are fake and I think this could actually be higher.”
Some weeks ago, Facebook “finally updated their transparency portal and announced that in the fourth quarter of 2018, that they have disabled 1.2 billion fake accounts. And in the first quarter of 2019, the numbers counted to 2.2 billion fake accounts, which is an exponential growth curve in fake accounts, according to their own numbers, which has not been audited by any respective body”. If all the numbers are added, “by a conservative guess, it can be said that there are 10billion fake accounts, for a platform which has 2.2 billion active users”. While “Facebook says that fake accounts don’t matter very much and within their undisclosed methodology, they are doing a good job.” Aaron believes that transparency around fake accounts is the number one problem for Facebook to look after.
FB is more ‘unwilling’ rather than ‘unable’ to tackle Fake accounts
When asked, if he thinks that “Facebook wants to tackle these problems of fake accounts and others”, Aaron answered “No”. He believes very strongly that Mark has no clear intention of complying with the law, as he’s not appearing in front of the parliament, in the UK or in Canada or anywhere where serious questions will be aimed at him. This is because,
“he has no genuine answers in many cases. So i have no faith in Facebook, I don’t think it can be trusted and don’t think it should be trusted and i would suggest independent analysis.”
The illusion of Behavioural advertising effectiveness
Aaron claims that “Behavioural advertising produces 4% benefit of revenue to advertisers”. So while adexchangers like “Google or Facebook might charge 59% more on average for targeted ads, or upto 4900% more” in some cases, they are going to get customers as they get benefit from them. He also described Facebook as a “black box”, and claimed advertisers were “in the dark” about how effective their campaigns actually are on Facebook and if it’s actually reaching real users.
Aaron adds that “I have come to the conclusion that Facebook is not in anybody’s control. The company has lost its capability to control its own platform. And i don’t think they can truly regain that ability”, he thus likened the social network to the ‘Chernobyl disaster’, the largest catastrophic nuclear disaster to hit the world in 1986. In this particular situation, there was a technology which was hyped and was “expected to be transformative and make some other problems go away”. Aaron says that in 2004, Mark had described the Facebook system as “something that would involve the problem of reaching critical mass, a nuclear power reference”. Aaron believes that by designing Facebook, the way it is now, “Mark has effectively removed the control from the reactor core”, and the result is an “enormous uninhabitable zone in the internet, which is polluted with disinformation and falsity, much like radiation, that transpires nearly impossible reverse.”
History of Facebook
Aaron who has always claimed that he is the original creator of Facebook, says that “My need to create ‘Universal Facebook’, was based on Harvard’s structure as an organization, while Mark wanted to build something cool.” He also states that “certainly neither of us had thought of this to be a global encompassing system”.
Aaron says that if he would have known that Mark was planning on “something like a huge global system”, he would have made it clear to Mark that “this could end up being a privacy nightmare”.
He adds that “In the early days, Facebook lost control of the platform and it will never get it back”, and “unfortunately, the Media has been a significant member in propelling Facebook since the last 10-12 years.”
Facebook is not growing
Aaron believes that Mark has been lying to investors and the global community about Facebook’s growth, which is not true. He says that from indicators, as an outside observer, everything suggests that the usage of Facebook is falling drastically as users are having concerns about their privacy and yet it is being publicised that Facebook is growing.
In reality, Facebook is growing in countries like India, Philippines, Vietnam, and Indonesia, which are the same countries where Facebook claims in their disclaimer that “we have more fake accounts coming from these countries than anyone else.” This means that Facebook is growing in countries where there is a known problem of ‘fake accounts’ and this is more problematic than the rest of the world.
Aaron alleges that this misrepresentation of facts to shareholders amounts to “fraud”.
On respecting Privacy and Personal Data
Aaron states that Facebook used to lie initially that “Openness is a universal good”, while the new lie Facebook says is that “Encryption is the same as privacy,” which is not true, “and that privacy is the universal good.” So Aaron believes that Mark is going completely in contrast to his earlier beliefs, as the “previous model was not working for him anymore so he made a new model, and this is going to increase” further for every next level of Facebook. Aaron also adds that “Encryption comes with a lot of pitfalls.”
On the question of whether Zuckerberg respects personal data, Aaron has claimed that Mark does not believe in the concept of Personal Data as he has been performing security fraud on a number of occasions, in an incredibly blatant manner. He states that “the SEC has done nothing about it because they are afraid of targeting a billionaire”. He also pointed out that Mark is not the only executive who lies to stockholders, and claimed that even other tech giants get away with this. For example, “Elon Musk does it.”
When asked “if there were any warning signs of the Cambridge Analytica scandal”, prior to 2016. Aaron says that “This wasn’t so much a breach as it was a designed behaviour, and that design was made so on Mark’s orders”. Aaron also recalled that, in 2007, when he was working with Ed Baker, Mark Zuckerberg’s current colleague, he was planning to break the law with a technique, allegedly designed to steal customer data. He added that “When I worked with Ed, he suggested for the software that we were building that, we should ask users for access to their address book. And regardless of whether the answer was yes or no, we should take that data anyway, and use that to send emails to other potential users”. Aaron claims that “At that point, I quit”. Eventually, Ed joined Facebook and is part of its growth team now.
Antitrust Law Debate
If an antitrust action is taken against Facebook, it would result in Whatsapp and Instagram being separated from its mother platform. However, Mark will still be responsible for 12 billion of users data of Facebook. According to Aaron, this is a huge problem. And this is the reason he believes that “antitrust action against Facebook, is not going to be effective in the long run”. He also adds that some other major methods needs to be undertaken to make Facebook behave responsibly.
How do we solve a problem like Facebook? Aaron has some ideas
Aaron believes that regulating an entity as large and complex like Facebook requires technical knowledge, and “by large US regulators lack the technical knowledge, to effectively enforce the laws that are already on the book.”
Aaron proposes a number of solutions for ways to regulate Facebook, out of which, the most important step he believed is “to remove Mark from the C.E.O. position.” He considers Mark incapable in being a responsible CEO to Facebook.
Aaron’s recommendation comes at a time when this week, around 68% of independent investors wanted the company to have an independent chairman. Despite the revolt, the proposal was not passed as Mark owns upto 75% of Class B stock, i.e., he has almost 60% of the voting power at Facebook. Obviously, he and his colleagues voted down the independent Chairman proposal very smoothly.
Next, Aaron suggested to regulate Facebook, along the lines of a government regulated bank. He proposes to have KYC requirements for all social media at this point of time. Also he adds that “I think anonymous speech should not be banned, as it plays an important role, but if there’s a problem in any case, then the anonymous person should be held to account.”
He says that as “Transparency around fake accounts, is the number one problem faced by Facebook”, a ‘Social Media Tax’ should be levied on all its users. He believes that it will provide some revenue to fund investigative journalism, and due to payment involved, it will require some kind of authentication. This can play a major role in identification of fake accounts. He says that this will make “the entire process manageable for governments.”
Check out the full hearing on the Parliament TV website.