Mark Zuckerberg and the tech bros are still on top – but their grip is loosening – The Guardian

Facebook’s woes cast a long shadow at a European tech summit this week, and it will take more than rebranding to mend them
Last modified on Sat 6 Nov 2021 17.46 GMT
It has been a bruising time for Facebook. The company is still absurdly profitable – Meta, its renamed parent company, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, generated $86bn (£63bn) in revenues last year, while Facebook’s own revenues grew by 56% in the second quarter. But away from the lucre, there is diminishing lustre. It stands condemned by critics and a widely feted whistleblower. And now it finds its standing diminishing among its peers.

I have been at the Web Summit in Portugal, a sort of Davos for the technology industry, which ended on Thursday with the sense that after years of talk about harm and regulation, the demands are increasing and change is finally in the air.

While it is true that most of the 40,000 startup founders, investors and other attendees still yearn to be the next $7tn company like Meta, there was also genuine discussion about the kind of tech and the kind of society that discovers children are being harmed and democracies undermined and yet does little or nothing about it.

The summit heard again from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen, who repeated her belief, already expressed to a US Senate subcommittee and backed up by leaked internal documents, that the company knew it was causing harm and carried on doing it anyway. She was unequivocal: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg should stand down, and possibly face trial.

Zuckerberg did not attend. Instead Nick Clegg, once Britain’s deputy prime minister, now Facebook and Zuckerberg’s mouthpiece, turned up virtually, his image beamed to delegates on a big screen. Even from this distance, it was unedifying. He said he has “worked at Meta for three years”. That set the tone. Meta is a new name unveiled just last month. Anything to avoid using the increasingly toxic F-word, it seems.

Clegg spoke of content; risible again. It’s “babies, barbecues and barmitzvahs”, he said. The key was what he didn’t say – no mention of bulimia and Brexit.

Roger McNamee, one of Facebook’s earliest investors and a former mentor to Zuckerberg turned vehement critic, said the stakes are high and warned that democracy “may never recover” if Facebook does not change. He said misuse of users’ data should be labelled as being unethical as child labour and compared the runaway trains of big tech to corporations controlling food and drugs at the turn of the century – essential industries that are out of control due to the lack of regulation. The answer, he said, was to make the buying and selling of data illegal – something that would crush the business model of all internet platforms.

In contrast with previous years, the tech masters of the universe looked different, post-Covid. There was more diversity: women made up 50% of the 40,000 attendees, if only one-third of the speakers. There were more people from minority groups present. A different crowd, seemingly with different expectations.

Martin Sorrell, the advertising guru, the sage of Soho whose economic forecasts are followed around the world, reported little sign yet of a consumer backlash but said the increasing pressure means companies such as Facebook (or Meta, as Zuckerberg would have us call it) may not be allowed to use their wealth – equal in some cases to the value of nation states – to snap up so many rivals as they have in the past.

And so at the close, they all departed, and after rubbing shoulders with the tech masters of the universe, what did I learn? That in some ways they are as they have always been, relatively young, whip-smart, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male. The tech bros still dominate. They shape our world, and as ever, they seek to shape it in their image.

But there is also a sense that their grip is loosening, the landscape is changing, and my feeling is that the Zuckerberg generation of tech masters may lack the depth perception to navigate it.

If the rising anxiety we feel about the web, social media and big tech is so evident among practitioners at their own place of reflection and worship, the Davos of tech in Europe, it will take more than a new branding metamorphosis to assuage it.
Jane Martinson is a Guardian columnist