Mark Zuckerberg still has too much control of Facebook despite putting Nick Clegg in hot seat
Promoting Nick Clegg masks Mark Zuckerberg's tight grip on Facebook.
Facebook has always been good at telling a story. After a whistle-blower revealed astonishing harm caused by the company's products to the mental health of teens and others across the world, the company changed its name and got everyone talking about the metaverse instead. Now Mark Zuckerberg has announced that his top policy executive, Nick Clegg, is being promoted and taking over the tough job of navigating an upcoming legal and regulatory minefield. The new story: Zuckerberg is relinquishing control and allowing Meta Platforms Inc. (Facebook) to be steered by a sophisticated public-policy savant.
But this announcement is actually doing two things. Yes, it is handing off much of Zuckerberg's responsibility around policy, relieving him of uncomfortable duties like answering to lawmakers and allowing him to focus on building and monetizing the immersive world he wants us all to one day inhabit. Zuckerberg has grown noticeably tired of apologizing for Facebook's noxious side effects and has spent much of the past year in his Hawaii compound. He publicly ignored the whistle-blower's disclosures for weeks, permitting Clegg to take those slings and arrows.
It also creates an illusion that someone else might take a different line on policy. Why else give them more sway? “We need a senior leader at the level of myself,” Zuckerberg wrote of Clegg in a Facebook post on Wednesday night.
Clegg was already the most senior policy official at Facebook. He will go from reporting to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, to reporting to both Sandberg and Zuckerberg. But Clegg was already in the room with both; this isn't so much a step up as shifting an inch closer to the person who is really in the driver's seat.
While the founders of other successful technology companies like Microsoft Corp., Alphabet Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. have stepped aside, the person who founded Facebook 18 years ago still controls 58% of voting shares and remains chairman. Shareholder attempts to curb that tight grip have failed, thanks to a loyal board of directors. Zuckerberg's top lieutenants, including Clegg, display that same kind of loyalty.
Although Clegg did play a key part in setting up Facebook's Oversight Board, whose effectiveness is still being proven out, it's hard to see him using his newfound position to take the company in a healthier direction with regulators by hashing it out with Zuckerberg. That is certainly not how many political historians remember Clegg's relationship with Prime Minister David Cameron, for whom he arguably acted more like a sidekick than a coalition partner.(1)
What's really troubling for Meta is that in order to make a success of the metaverse, Zuckerberg will need to roll up his sleeves and dive deeply into the public policy work that he loathes. Already one of the most pressing, new issues he's facing revolves around policy and human behavior: There have been several incidents of harassment of women on Meta's social metaverse platform Horizon Venues, including an incident of virtual groping and one of virtual gang rape.
Microsoft Corp. has already given a masterclass on how to respond: on Wednesday it announced a series of measures to address harassment on its own metaverse platforms, completely shutting down three of its main social VR apps, including a polished, popular zone for meeting up and playing games with strangers called Campfire. It's also turning on safety bubbles for all its virtual reality visitors by default, boosting moderators and automatically muting anyone who attends an event.
Facebook's efforts to address metaverse safety look tepid in comparison. Following the reports of harassment, it introduced an option to block avatars from coming within a two-foot radius of a user's own avatar. Blocking tools certainly have some promise, but they have been trialed in gaming and can be misused as a blockade against others. A more serious attempt at establishing safety as a norm would be to shut down Meta's social VR platforms — as Microsoft did — and re-design them with safety in mind.
But there is a scant possibility that Nick Clegg will push for big reforms like that. So long as Zuckerberg maintains his current level of control, expect the status quo to continue.
It is telling that on Wednesday Facebook also announced a new head of public relations who had relatively little PR experience, but a background of working on competition issues at the company. This suggests that publicly, Facebook is gearing up to make an aggressive case against antitrust regulators this year and next.
Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously reported for the Wall Street Journal and Forbes and is the author of 'We Are Anonymous.'
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