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The Rich are not Better

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

The article Mark Zuckerberg is a Rich Jerk by Dean Baker (Beat the Press) takes issue with the media’s love affair with plumbing the depths of billionaires’ minds.[1]

“It is bizarre that so many people look to the country’s billionaires to tell us how the world should be constructed or think that these people have any great insight into such matters. Being a billionaire means that you were successful at getting very rich. There is no reason to believe that billionaires have any more insight into major policy issues than anyone else.

“[…] why would anyone think that Zuckerberg would know or care about how Facebook should be run in a way that protects democracy? Zuckerberg runs Facebook to make to make money (lots of it), not to promote democracy. The way to fix the problems of Facebook is not to convince Zuckerberg of its harms, the way to fix Facebook is to change the law. (Emphasis added.)”

He makes the excellent point that, while the billionaires—and society in general, implicitly doing their bidding—do their damnedest to convince us that they are in charge just because they have all the money, they are not in charge.

We are still, at least nominally, in charge of them. It doesn’t feel like this is the case (again, mostly because of the flood of propaganda working to convince us otherwise) but we could change how things work, if we were so inclined.

Baker likes to remind us that situations that seem horribly unfair are built that way. There are few natural laws that determine our economy. Instead, there are thousands of man-made laws funneling money upward—most of these laws built by those with money to ensure that the situation remains unchanged.

We should not waste any time worrying about these peoples’ feelings—they certainly don’t return the favor.

In the specific case of Facebook, Baker advises that,

“[t]he best way to address the immediate issue of concern with Facebook, that it will run political ads with lies, is simply to remove Facebook’s exemption from libel law. In the early days of the Internet, Congress passed the Communications Decency Act, which established rules for Internet. The law included a provision, Section 230, which exempted intermediaries like Facebook from libel. This provision means that Facebook, unlike the New York Times or CNN, cannot be sued if it transmits false and damaging claims about individuals, companies, or other entities. (Emphasis added.)”

This disparity is striking and a tremendous economic boon to Facebook. Like Uber (not acknowledging employees), AirBNB (not paying hotel taxes) or Amazon (not paying sales taxes), its business model is based on an artificial and wholly unfair advantage over competitors that it exploited to become a monopoly.

“Zuckerberg might argue that Facebook’s operations are highly automated, people can buy ads on Facebook without any human intervention. This means that it doesn’t have staff available to review all the ads that it runs. That is undoubtedly true, but that is Mark Zuckerberg’s problem. Just as the New York Times and CNN pay people to review the ads they run, Facebook can pay to review the ads it runs. That will cost lots of money and reduce Facebook’s profits, but so what? (Emphasis added.)”

Baker goes on to argue that “[i]t is hard to see an argument as to why we should not be at least as concerned about protecting democracy as protecting copyright holders’ ability to make money from their copyrights”. While this is an excellent point, it’s not likely to convince people who wonder to what degree cracking down on libel on the Internet would actually protect democracy.

I think that the line of reasoning that appeals universally is asking why is one business model preferred over the other? Why are the rules different for Facebook and so-called classic media? This argument should hit home for anyone interested in fairness, regardless of other political leanings. Baker finishes strongly with exactly this argument,

“if Facebook wants to compete with print and broadcast outlets for advertising dollars, it should be held to the same rules as these outlets.”

That this situation is unlikely to change has nothing to do with the power of the argument against Facebook’s exemption under the CDA and everything to do with the dysfunction of the American government.


[1]

In this article, Baker focuses on Zuckerberg, but in the article Yet Another New York Times Column Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong by Dean Baker (Beat the Press), he makes the same argument about Bill Gates.

“No, technology does not generate inequality. Our policy on technology generates inequality. We have rules (patent and copyright monopolies) that allow people to own technology.

“Bill Gates is incredibly rich because the government will arrest anyone who mass produces copies of Microsoft software without his permission. If anyone could freely reproduce Windows and other software, without even sending a thank you note, Bill Gates would still be working for a living.”