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Facebook Confronts Role In Providing Entrepreneurs Access To Online World

Feb 2, 2017
Originally published on February 3, 2017 9:54 am

For some users, the platform is more important than having a driver's license. They use Facebook to make a living, but they find the rules change often, and the company boots people out without a clear reason or appeals process. As CEO Mark Zuckerberg undertakes his Middle America tour this year, he may have the opportunity to confront the realities of Facebook's economic impact on others.

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It's tempting to think of Facebook as pure entertainment, but that's not quite true these days. This week, NPR's Aarti Shahani reported on people who rely on the app for work to make a living. Their stories illustrate just how powerful the Facebook empire has become in controlling access to the online world and how opaque the company is about this power. Just a note - Facebook pays NPR and other leading news organizations to produce live videos. Here's Aarti.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Earlier this week, we introduced you to two very different people. The first, Tim Lawler in Florida, started some goofy pages on Facebook to share PG humor, memes and make money that way. One day, he got a stream of pop-up notifications from Facebook.

TIM LAWLER: This page has been unpublished. This page has been unpublished. And I was like, oh, my God.

SHAHANI: Sandra Nyaira, an investigative reporter from Zimbabwe, got expelled from the platform because Facebook's software thought she was a child pornographer. While reporting a story, she made the honest mistake of sharing a horrible picture of children being abused. It made total sense to her that she'd get kicked off temporarily, and she thought...

SANDRA NYAIRA: ...That's fine. I'll contact Facebook and tell the moderators what's going on and provide them with all the information.

SHAHANI: What the Florida meme-maker and the Zimbabwean reporter have in common is that they both use Facebook for their careers. And when they got blocked, they found it was impossible to reach a human being and reconnect. Tim Wu suspects more people will have this experience. He's a professor at Columbia Law School and writes about the online economy. Wu says think of Facebook as an industrial park. Users could be a farmer, a salesman, a journalist. Users set up offices in the park, use the roads, treat it like a public utility, but legally, it's private. So the landowner, Facebook...

TIM WU: ...Very randomly they could just, like, shut off the road that goes to your business. Or suddenly you're just evicted, you know, and you have no idea why. And that's it. You're done.

SHAHANI: Many people fear technology is destroying jobs, not creating them. This year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a new year's resolution. He's going to tour Middle America and talk to real people about their concerns. I asked Tim Wu what he'd say to the CEO on tour, and he poses these questions.

WU: What are you doing for the economic development of Middle America? What can you offer them, other than a chance to see their friends' kids and make ad revenue off people's children? He can do better (laughter). He can do better.

SHAHANI: He's not just asking about individual cases, but about how Facebook, which is the sixth largest company on Earth, sees its role in promoting commerce, creating opportunities for others. A few months ago, onstage at Stanford University, Zuckerberg got asked pretty much the same thing by former President Barack Obama.


BARACK OBAMA: How's Facebook thinking about its own role in creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world?

SHAHANI: Obama was interviewing the CEO at a conference for entrepreneurs. Zuckerberg did not talk about Facebook's role. Instead, he defined the word entrepreneurship.


MARK ZUCKERBERG: You know, the most effective entrepreneurs who I've met care deeply about some mission and some change that they're trying to create. And often, they don't even start because they're trying to create a company.

SHAHANI: Of course, lots of people do want to create a company or earn a living and use Facebook to help them do it. Mark Zuckerberg will have many more opportunities to explain to them how - even if - Facebook can help as he tours the U.S. NPR requested an interview with him to discuss the situation of users who rely on Facebook for work. The company declined. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.

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