In early January, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that his personal challenge for 2017 was to “meet and listen to people in all 50 states,” a statement some considered to be paving the way for either a position in President Trump’s administration or a run for public office. According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, it’s possible that he could serve in a government position indefinitely, while still controlling Facebook—creating an interesting partnership between a government known for wanting massive amounts of data on citizens and a social media giant known for collecting it.
The question of conflict of interest naturally enters into this discussion, and the drama surrounding the possibility of Zuckerberg in a government office has been brewing for some time. In early 2015, Zuckerberg asked the Facebook Board of Directors if they would allow him to retain a controlling vote in the company if he sold his stocks. His goal was to be able to serve in a government position without giving up control of Facebook. The board was initially reticent, worried that Zuckerberg’s commitment would be lacking—and dilute their voting power. They created a committee to discuss the matter and work directly with Zuckerberg to explore the possibility of his serving in office while still committed to running the world’s biggest social media company.
Venture capitalist and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen, however, was discovered to be secretly advising Zuckerberg on how to negotiate with the committee—a group that specifically chose Andreessen because of his lack of financial dependence on Zuckerberg. No concrete plans are in place for him to seek public office, but rumors are swirling, and Zuckerberg seems poised to ensure that if he does decide to switch gears, the path is already clear.
Facebook’s internal drama notwithstanding, Americans have been growing increasingly worried about the amount of information that Facebook is collecting about them—even more, in fact, than they worry about government surveillance. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp also has caused a great deal of public outrage both in the US and abroad, as WhatsApp reneged on their promise not to share data with Facebook almost immediately.
With at least one other Facebook board member—Palantir founder Peter Thiel—already involved in the Trump transition team and playing a pivotal role in government data collection, putting Zuckerberg in a government position could potentially close the loop on private data collection. It would also add to fears that Trump is looking to privatize intelligence collection, relegating the Central Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency to more peripheral roles in intelligence—and possibly incurring their wrath.
Some see Recent remarks by Charles Schumer regarding Trump’s “really dumb” public feud with the intelligence community as the go-ahead for the agencies to do whatever they think is necessary to stop Trump from carrying out his plan to corporatize intelligence. Perhaps even more disturbing is their assertion that the recent leaks are proof that the intelligence community has gotten the message. Noted insurgency expert John Robb and Mises scholar William L. Anderson have both written about the precarious and even dangerous situation that is brewing between President Trump and the intelligence community.
While it remains to be seen if Zuckerberg is planning a run for office or expects to be given an appointment in the administration, the ripple effects of his simultaneous control of Facebook and access to government information could prove to be problematic in more ways than one.