In 2018, Facebook is the villain and Microsoft the shining light, according to techies

How things change

Woman thumbs down, image via Shutterstock

Well, it's official. For years, at El Reg offices we have commented on how Facebook is the new Microsoft – and not in a good way.

Time passes and so while most people can remember that the Zuckerberg-front ad machine was once a beacon of all that was great and wonderful about social media, few recall that Microsoft wasn't always the dull but worthy corporate software company. It was once a hulking, malevolent bully-monopolist that dared the US government to take it on.

Well, on a conference stage in Silicon Valley this morning, the Facebook-as-Microsoft transformation became accepted reality. In a session aimed at "making the internet free from fear", the four panelists were asked which company was the "worst example of a corporation that isn't making the internet safe" and which we "need to look up to as a model who is doing a really good job of making the internet safe."

At the end of the session, they were asked for their picks. The worst? Facebook; Facebook and its subsidiaries; most of the genetic data companies (23andMe etc); Facebook. And the shining light? Microsoft; Microsoft; companies fighting backdoors into encryption; Microsoft.

The single voice not putting Microsoft on a pedestal and condemning Facebook to the depths, incidentally, was Jeanne Sheahan, an attorney previously at Eventbrite and Groupon.

That is a remarkable turnaround even for the tech industry. Facebook has gone from hero to zero in an incredibly short timeframe (even if some have been sounding the alarm bell for some time). It was the private data abuse and the apologies and the Russian inference, and the apologies, and the abuse again and the apologies. But it seems that everyone has finally had enough of the social media giant. Something to do with hiring a team of political assassinations to attack a critics using anti-Semitic language - and then lying about it.

Even Microsoft didn't do that. At least not that we ever found out about, anyway.

Chameleon

Microsoft's turn around from company that would invite you into to merge talks and then steal your technology and slam the door in your face, to "model of who is doing a really good job" is far less dramatic but nonetheless remarkable.

The company was forced to confront its awfulness, not just politically but also in business terms: Internet Explorer once famously – and illegally - ruled the roost and now it will be a skin of Google's Chrome.

Companies and engineers used to flock to its door. Now they balk at getting on a plane to Seattle when they can stay in Silicon Valley and get more money. Microsoft's innovations died as it grew ever more powerful. Once that power tapered off, it suddenly found its form again – and the new Surface computers are setting the pace.

And, of course, it learned to stand up to the US government. In the right way. After years of happily giving the Feds access to whatever they asked for.

It has said no to accessing email on servers abroad. It has said no (well, no-ish) to undermining encryption. And it has refused to undertake in the business model of our times – gathering and selling your users' data to the highest bidder - quite as badly as others it seems.

It wasn't just in this session that Facebook and its ilk got a bashing either. Former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, remarked that "until tech gets the fundamental ideas of ethics, we are really in trouble."

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And just to make it clear who he meant, he referenced that fact that troops in Myanmar were using Facebook to encourage others to slaughter innocent Rohingya Muslims. And noted that the head of another tech company – Jack Dorsey of Twitter – had just boasted online about going on a yoga retreat in the country.

Data

At a conference where attendees have considered and railed against all the digital wrongs we are currently living with, from trolling to fake news to election interference, the one thing that pretty much everyone agrees with is that the only thing that is preventing Facebook turning from a multi-billion dollar company to a novel website: The sale of private information.

We need to "change the rules so you own your own data," suggested Ilves as a broad solution to many of our current ills. Other else agrees, albeit with different approaches added on: changing the tech architecture to make it possible; increasing education to help people make the right choices.

But the message today was clear: Facebook, you suck. ®

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