Facebook has been dealing with increasing criticism regarding the company’s ethics, most notably the claims that Facebook were spreading fake news on users news feeds. Now it’s two months into 2017 and Facebook are once again in the news for all the wrong reasons. Facebook are currently in the midst of two lawsuits, the first revolves around whether or not the Oculus Rift was a stolen idea, while in a separate case Syrian refugee Anas Modamani is suing Facebook because a selfie he took with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was used in numerous fake news stories which falsely linked him to recent terror attacks. All this news comes in the wake of Facebook recording an outstanding $3.56 billion fourth-quarter profit of 2016.
Back in 2014, Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion, two months after the purchase Facebook was sued for the same amount by Zenimax Media. Zenimax claimed that Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey took company secrets with him when he left iD software (Zenimax) for Oculus and that these secrets were used in developing the Oculus Rift. Lukey exchanged emails with John Carmack (Oculus VR founder and former Zenimax employee) regarding code and design schematics for the Oculus. Zenimax’s lawyers provided a statement clarifying that ‘Zenimax’s technology may not be licensed, transferred or sold without Zenimax Media’s approval’.
Facebook stayed quiet on the allegations for awhile before Carmack and Zuckerberg both made statements downplaying the severity of the lawsuit. During the recent trial, Luckey primarily defended the origins of the Oculus Rift by explaining how he had built the prototype in his parents house in 2012 and that he didn’t take any confidential code. It was revealed later on in the trial that Oculus VR originally asked for $4 billion before they were talked down to $2 billion with an extra $700 million in ‘compensation’ and $300 million in ‘hitting certain milestones’.
In the end, Facebook vs. Zenimax ended in stalemate with Oculus (Facebook) found not guilty in stealing secrets – certainly a PR success for Facebook. However, Zenimax will receive $500 million for violations of non-disclosure agreements. To make it simpler to understand here is a breakdown of the payments to Zenimax: Oculus will pay $200 million for violating the non-disclosure agreement Palmer Luckey signed with Zenimax. Oculus will pay $50 million for copyright infringement. Former Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe will pay $150 million for false designation. And Palmer Luckey will pay $50 million for false designation.
Although the case is over this is not the end, with Oculus and Zenimax lawyers making initial plans to appeal the ruling. Oculus stated ‘Oculus products are built with Oculus technology … We look forward to filling our appeal and eventually putting this litigation behind us’. $500 million isn’t going to break the bank for Facebook but the decision to appeal may bring some unnecessary and unwanted attention.
Facebook are currently in another lawsuit, one that could have potential to damage Facebook’s reputation. A simple selfie with Angela Merkel in 2015 taken by Anas Modamani after the chancellor decided Germany would house hundreds of thousands of migrants should have been an image of promise. But instead Modamani is now seeking an injunction in the German courts that would force Facebook to stop the use of the photo and prevent users from reposting the image or altered versions after it has repeatedly showed up on fake news reports linking Modamani to terrorism.
Anas Modamani when asked by media about the image originally said ‘for first five months, I thought it was a good luck charm… But now I think bad luck’. He later went on to say after he noticed one of the fake news stories ‘This was not me, I thought immediately: What does this mean? What about my future? This is serious’. Modamani who is now 19, is a refugee from Syria who was living in a shelter the time of the original photo. Nowadays he is living with a foster family on the outskirts of Berlin and was first made aware of the fake news stories by a friend who showed a story that linked him to the attacks in Brussels and later in the year Modamani was also linked with the Christmas market attack in Berlin.
‘Facebook will be faced with increasing criticism of its inability to control quality or the accuracy of information on its site’.
Modamani’s lawyers who acknowledged that Facebook deleted some posts but insisted that the social media giant could’ve done more to prevent the sharing of the image. In response Facebook lawyer Martin Munz said ‘there are billions of posts each day, Facebook would need a wonder machine to detect each misuse’. Munz continued to argue that Facebook had helped Modamani and that since the case involved defamation, it was the individual who should be held responsible because he uploaded it not Facebook. However, in December Modamani’s picture circulated around Facebook again, accusing him of being involved in an attack on a homeless man in Berlin. Modamani responded to this recent accusation by saying ‘I want peace in my life … Not everyone believes me but all I did was take a selfie with Ms. Merkel’.
This case comes at a terrible time for Facebook who have been dealing with severe criticism regarding the policing of fake news with some even accusing Facebook of promoting fake news during the recent US presidential election. The site’s newsfeed algorithm promotes posts that share well. But now Facebook have altered their algorithms and have recently installed filtering systems in America, France and Germany (where most of the criticism has been coming from). In France specifically Facebook has joined up with Google to launch a fact checking system to identify fake news ahead of the presidential election.
Facebook are certainly in a unique position right now with many users using their news feed to keep up with current affairs and taking everything they see to heart. It seems that Facebook can only continue to climb and will continue to provide users with news, real or fake. In the era of Trump’s Presidency and the rise of the online alt-right movement, Facebook will be faced with increasing criticism of its inability to control quality or the accuracy of information on its site. And now making strides into the Virtual Reality business these lawsuits could be a recurring theme in the future.
Conor McGovern Tech Editor