Conflict of interest or censorship? Facebook

Conflict of interest or censorship? Facebook

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conflitto di interessi facebook

Conflict of interest is a legal condition that occurs when a person who has personal or professional interests contrary to the impartiality required by such responsibility is entrusted with a high degree of decision-making responsibility"

Before starting our article, we'd like to spend a few minutes to show you a video of October 23, 2019 where US Congressman Bill Posey, U.S. politician and member of the Florida House of Representatives, asked Mark Zuckerberg about the censorship applied by the well-known social network Facebook to pages or groups against vaccination mandates during the hearings at the Financial Services Committee:

Congressman Bill Posey is just one in a long series of politicians who have questioned the impartiality of Facebook and this small detail is the crucial difference between being impartial, i.e. a mere container of content with policies that cannot conflict with the laws of the states in which it operates, or having an editorial line and therefore be classified as a publisher. It is precisely on this theme that the discussion is focusing on the censorship that the great giants of the web applied to some particular issues. We, however, would like to propose a different point of view: the possible conflict of interest at the basis of the "editorial" choices of the web giants, starting from Facebook.

How many of you know that Mark Zuckerberg has his own foundation that funds the development of vaccines?


chan zuckerberg

In September 2016, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan (a pediatrician trained at UCSF - University of California San Francisco), announced to the world[1] that they would invest at least $3 billion to "cure, manage and prevent all diseases by the end of the century". The first step in this philanthropic plan was the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub,[2] a $600 million-a-year scientific research organisation run by some leading figures from UCSF, Berkeley University and Stanford University.

Chan Zuckerberg Biohub is said to have been funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative,[3] a limited liability company set up in December 2015 with substantial economic capital of around $45 billion from the donation of 99% of the Facebook shares held by the couple of new philanthropists.

The initial objective of CZB (Chan Zuckerberg Biohub) was to build a "cell atlas" - a characterisation of all cell types in the human body - and to develop new ways to detect, respond, treat and prevent infectious diseases through vaccines. Genetic bioengineering and vaccines, the combination of the future.

To represent the overall vision, we quote a statement by Marck Zuckerberg:

"…you can take any system, no matter how complex it is, and make it much, much better than the current one, whether it's code, hardware, biology, a company, an educational system, a government - anything".

Apart from the praise from the usual suspects at the monumental undertaking of the eradication of infectious diseases from the face of the earth, one above all, the praise from Bill Gates, a very small detail had been missed by many media: the intellectual property of CZB's research projects, would remain under their control and owned by CZB.

It was in 2016 when the BuzzFeed News obtained, through a request for public registration, the constitutive document [4] of the Zuckerberg project. Jacob Sherkow, associate professor at the New York Law School, specialized in biotechnological patent law, when approached by BuzzFeed for an opinion on the quality of the agreement, stated:

"I think that the structure of this agreement and who is on board (the UCSF, Berkeley University and Stanford University) and how much each party seems willing to contribute to the project, is a signal that the Hub will be really huge. It won't be a small thing... Whether or not it meets the goal of treating all diseases in the course of our life, this is something that remains to be discovered... needless to say, I'm extremely skeptical".

So, agreement in hand, in theory a cancer treatment - one of the four types of deadly diseases that Chan and Marck say they want to fight - could be licensed to a pharmaceutical company. The contract also makes it possible to patent research tools partly developed through the Biohub.

We quote Stephen Quake, Co-Chairman of CZB and Professor at Stanford, giving his opinion:

"Some people believe that, for certain inventions, they need patent protection to receive the investment and financing needed to bring them to market and help people, others think that their inventions are better spread simply by giving them away. There are many examples of software where people say: I want to give the code away and let everyone use it".

Starting from the two areas of attention developed by the Biohub, i.e. the mapping of all cells in the human body and the development of new tools for the creation of drugs, diagnostic tests and vaccines for infectious diseases such as HIV and Zika, it is easy to see how the economic potential of the project is perhaps enormously greater than the objective itself.

Proceeding with the analysis of the contract, it is clear that the scientists working in the Biohub have the possibility to make their discoveries open-source, provided that the CZB approves and that in any case they are jointly owned by both the CZB and the universities where the scientists come from. The document also says that such discoveries can be patented, licensed to external researchers or companies and marketed in other ways.

The document does not reveal how the revenue will be distributed between the various institutions. If the parties enter into a dispute over who owns a discovery (patented or not), this will be settled by a third party lawyer or in confidential arbitration.

Not all policies described in the document are adopted literally by the Biohub. For example, the document says that when scientists want to publish or submit a research and such research is the property of both the Biohub and a university, they are required to let the Biohub examine their manuscript at least 30 days in advance in case the Biohub wants to patent or remove confidential information.

Are there any examples of inventions, research or patents of Chan Zuckerberg Biohub?

In September 2019, some researchers at Stanford University and UCSF,[5] funded by CZB, were working on the development of a vaccine capable of eliminating colds or upper respiratory infections not related to influenza. The treatment of the world's most common infectious disease, which costs the US economy several billion dollars a year, opens the door to a healthcare market worth around $3.5 trillion.[6]

raffreddore

Leaving the vaccines sector, precisely on 20 October 2020 in the midst of the Covid19 emergency, a pilot study known as CATCH - Community Alliance to Test Coronavirus at Home - was launched in all 12 counties of the great California Bay Area.[7] The project aims to monitor the dissemination of Sars-Cov-2 and develop a self-testing kit. The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, Gates Ventures, the University of Washington, Microsoft Research and other public and private institutions as well as the advisory support of the ubiquitous Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation participate in the project. The results of this research can also be used by public health departments and employers around the world, bringing both a contribution and a huge amount of money.

We could proceed for much longer to list the research projects of Chan Zuckerberg Biohub that have had or will have a potential disproportionate economic return, we only need to think that the non-profit financier, CZI, currently holds a capital, that derived from 99% of Facebook shares donated by the Zuckerberg couple, which in August 2020 exceeded 80 billion dollars.[8]

Let us return to the definition of conflict of interest: "Conflict of interest is a legal condition that occurs when a person who has personal or professional interests contrary to the impartiality required by such responsibility is entrusted with a high degree of decision-making responsibility, which may be lacking because of the interests involved".

Now, let us be malicious using the initial definition of conflict of interest and let us analyse a imaginary scenario:

Any Facebook page, let's take an invented name like The HighWire Del Bigtree, with millions of users following it, sees the communication channel closed because it does not comply with the corporate social policies. The reasons for these violations can be different, such as questioning the tests for Covid19, or worse, daring to speak out and get doctors to speak out against the vaccination requirement and perhaps even highlighting damage from vaccination. These pages do not instigate hatred, do not violate American state laws and, as far as we know, do not violate the laws of other states either. They do not disclose illegal content, they only raise doubts, but these doubts, which can also hurt the sensibilities of other people who are free not to follow them, are in contrast with the policies of a private company whose president and CEO has specific economic interests in sharp contrast with the opinions expressed by the censored page.

Do you call this censorship? Because we, perhaps less intellectually sophisticated but more practical, only see a trivial conflict of interest.


[1] https://www.facebook.com/zuck/videos/10103120865133051/?hc_ref=PAGES_TIMELINE

[2] https://www.czbiohub.org/

[3] https://chanzuckerberg.com/

[4] https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/stephaniemlee/chan-zuckerberg-biohub-contract

[5] https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2019/09/in-human-cells-and-mice-a-cure-for-the-common-cold.html

[6] https://www.aboutpharma.com/blog/2020/03/09/amazon-vuole-sviluppare-un-vaccino-contro-il-raffreddore/

[7] https://news.microsoft.com/innovation-stories/stanford-vera-cloud-testing/

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/08/16/chan-zuckerberg-initiative-black-employees/