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Sunday Special » Perspective

Posted at: Apr 15, 2018, 1:23 AM; last updated: Apr 15, 2018, 1:23 AM (IST)POTPOURRI

A like-for-like? How Mark had it easy

Whether he liked it or not, the fact is the CEO of Facebook, so integrated with our 'real' lives, was put through the grind by senators over privacy lapses. In preparation, the world's most celebrated social media company has unleashed a blitz of activities. Mark Zuckerberg, 33, one of the world's youngest billionaires, spent several days with consultants and a Washington DC law firm. So adamant he was to be ready for any question that might get thrown his way, and so insistent was he to appear charming and contrite, that his team even arranged a mock session, with the staff members filling the roles of senators. As it was, the man kept reminding everyone how he started a company, now valued at $80bn, in his college dorm room.

During a session involving 44 senators from two committees, time and again it appeared those questioning him had only a vague grasp on the subject. Some seemed clueless, and yet that did not stop them from grandstanding during their five-minute questioning.

Orrin Hatch, an 84-year-old Republican from Utah, was among those accused of exposing the generational divide when he asked the Facebook boss about the possibility of a paid service that would enable users to not see any adverts. Zuckerberg insisted there would always be a free version of Facebook. Hatch asked how he could sustain a business without charging anything for it. “Sir, we run ads,” Zuckerberg explained gently. 

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham did ask Zuckerberg one decent question about what Facebook was doing to counter hate speech on its platform in Myanmar. It was one of the few times the 33-year-old seemed to have to think. Graham asked if he believed Facebook was a monopoly. The South Carolina senator said: “If I buy a Ford, and it doesn’t work well, and I don’t like it, I can buy a Chevy. If I'm upset with Facebook, what's the equivalent product I can go sign up for?” 

Zuckerberg sought to suggest he was not comparing like with like. Asked if Facebook operated a monopoly, he replied: “It doesn’t feel that way to me.”

Perhaps the toughest questions came from Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, one of the few politicians present with a background as a tech executive. She asked several points about tech company Palantir, and whether it scraped Facebook data. Zuckerberg said he did not know. 

Yet crucially, nobody pressed Zuckerberg hard about whether Facebook and other similar platforms should face tougher government regulation. Indeed, many of them seemed pleased when he “agreed” to help in drafting legislation they wished to pass.

ECO WARRIORS

Aru Shiney-Ajay first became genuinely worried about climate change when she visited the family in India and found the streams and grass where she had played as a child had shriveled as a result of drought. “Someplace that I knew really well turned into something unrecognizable,” said Shiney-Ajay, now 20 and a student at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. So she turned to the Sunrise Movement, a US-based youth network that aims to “build an army of young people to stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process”.

“When I think of climate change, I am driven by fear and anger,” she said. But her activism — including occupying the office of Republican House Representative Patrick Meehan of Pennsylvania last December with other Sunrise Movement members — has given her a feeling she can make a difference. The sit-in, she said, was an attempt to stop Meehan from voting on a tax bill that would provide tax cuts to fossil fuel billionaires, among others. Meehan voted for the bill anyway, which passed last December, but Shiney-Ajay now knows how to take a stand.

Her generation is ready to act on climate change, which is a “preventable crisis”, she said. That's particularly true because younger people — who will live to see the more severe impacts of climate change — have more at stake.

Around the world, youth-led lawsuits, peaceful protests and environmental action events are gathering pace, as younger generations use the most powerful tool they have at their disposal: their voice.

GOING ERROR-FREE

This is height of exactness in democracy: Fabiola Diaz, 18, sits in the food court of her Georgia high school and meticulously fills out a voter registration form. Driver’s licence in one hand, she carefully writes her licence number in the box provided, her first name, last name, address, her eyes switching from licence to the paper form and back again to ensure every last detail, down to hyphens and suffixes, is absolutely correct.

Diaz, and the voting rights activists holding a voter registration drive at South Cobb High School in northern Atlanta, know why it is so important not to make an error.

A law passed by the Republican-controlled Georgia state legislature last year requires that all of the letters and numbers of the applicant's name, date of birth, driver's licence number and last four digits of their Social Security number exactly match the same letters and numbers in the motor vehicle department or Social Security databases.

The tiniest discrepancy on a registration form places them on a “pending” voter list. A Reuters analysis of Georgia's pending voter list, obtained through a public records request, found that black voters landed on the list at a far higher rate than white voters even though a majority of Georgia’s voters are white.

Both voting rights activists and Georgia's state government say the reason for this is that blacks more frequently fill paper ballots than whites, who are more likely to do them online. Paper ballots are more prone to human error, both sides agree. But they disagree on whether the errors are made by those filling the forms or officials processing the forms.

NOBEL REPUTATION AT STAKE

The Nobel Foundation has warned that the international reputation of the Nobel Prize may be at stake after a series of rows that have rocked the Swedish Academy, the body that awards the Nobel Prize in literature. It stated that its board members had met to discuss the latest developments, which includes three Academy members announcing that they would to step down — a move that has shocked the literary and cultural world. “It is unavoidable that a crisis within a prize-awarding institution also damages the Nobel Prize's reputation. We can establish that confidence in the Academy has been severely broken. The way in which what is now happening will come to harm the Nobel Prize cannot yet be fully assessed,” it said. The three Academy members chose to step down after a majority of members voted not to exclude a member whose husband has been accused of sexual harassment and of influencing the Academy as well as of allegedly leaking the names of a number of literature laureates in the past.

Sources: The Independent, Thomson Reuters Foundation & IANS

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