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Security and privacy of our online presence is vitally important, perhaps more so than we may realize at this stage of the evolution of social media. It is similar to patient safety and quality in healthcare; there is no room for compromise, and neglect can be catastrophic. I was quite involved in the subject of privacy and content on the Internet in the early days of the web. In roughly 1995, a dozen Internet executives attended a meeting at the White House with Al Gore. President Clinton joined the meeting near the end. The focus of the meeting was mostly on content and how it could be rated to protect children. I was one of the co-founders of the World Wide Web Consortium at MIT in 1994 and was chairman of the Global Internet Project. I was also involved in content rating initiatives. The President of the American Library Association argued against any “censorship” of Internet content. I argued we needed to protect children and regulate XXX content on the web. I also argued privacy would become an even bigger issue. That was nearly 25 years ago. My hunch turned out to be a gross understatement of the issue. Because of the importance and my personal interest in the topic of privacy, I decided to watch the entire hearings by the Senate and House committees. It was an eye opener in several respects.

First was Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and chief executive officer of Facebook. The 33-year-old young man has a net worth estimated to be $62.2 billion as of March 25. The riches did not fall from the sky. Zuckerberg launched Facebook from his Harvard University dormitory room, and it has continuously expanded. It now serves two billion users, mostly outside of the United States. Time magazine named Zuckerberg among the 100 wealthiest and most influential people in the world. He was ranked 10th on the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People. He attended Ardsley High School, in Westchester County, New York, and then Phillips Exeter Academy, a private school in New Hampshire. He won prizes in math, astronomy, physics, and classical studies. He also attended the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth summer camp. He could read and write French, Hebrew, Latin, and ancient Greek, and was captain of the fencing team. With crowds of photographers, senators, reporters, and staff, Mark Zuckerberg was cool, calm, collected, and articulate as he was grilled by Congress.

The second eye opener was Congress. Being a septuagenarian, I can say age does not have to be a barrier to understanding Internet technology. I cannot say I was surprised, but it was nevertheless stunning how ignorant our elected Senators are about technology. It wasn’t just the octogenarians either. More than 40 Senators each had five minutes to ask questions. It was clear they had so many Senators because it was a political opportunity to show their constituents they were on top of the issue. Apparently, they did not consider how clueless they would sound reading questions from sheets of paper prepared by someone else, which they obviously did not understand. Many of the questions were beyond stupid. Zuckerberg was stupefied and speechless with many of the questions.

European regulators have been working on privacy protection for quite a few years. The Global Internet Project board, of which I was chairman, travelled the world circa 1995 to urge regulators not to over-regulate the infantile Internet. Around 2000, we declared victory, having concluded the Internet had reach puberty and was unstoppable. The Europeans continued to work on privacy regulation, and next month its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will go into effect. The GDPR is thousands of pages and will cost the tech industry billions of dollars to implement and potentially billions in fines for non-compliance. The GDPR may be excessive, but I am generally in favor of it. A small minority of the U.S. Congress understands the issues, has developed a number of bipartisan bills with more to come, but has been unable to gain a political consensus. If you have any doubts about the need for privacy regulation, go to your Facebook account and download the data about you Facebook has collected, and which they use to make advertisers able to target you. This is not all. bad, but the issue is the average Facebook user does not realize what data is being captured and what is being done with it. GDPR changes that by requiring social media sites to inform you and get your permission to save data about you. Facebook, and Google and others, know who your friends are, what books and movies you have seen, where you have been and when, what you have written, who you have sent messages to and about what, and much more. Again, this is not all bad, but I think the need for government oversight is clear.

The most used term in Zuckerberg’s answers and comments was AI. We can be quite sure the majority of Congress has no idea what artificial intelligence is and what it can do. AI has the potential to help solve the problematic aspects of social media, but it is a two-edged sword. I will write more about AI next week.