Facebook represents a new kind of corporate power, the dimensions of which are only now becoming apparent. Mark Zuckerberg took out full-page adverts in several British and US newspapers. The reason: to apologise for Facebook’s recent data privacy scandal. In this post I’ll explore the implications of how the company protects its users’ data.
Facebook: What Happened?
Facebook stands accused of failing to prevent the personal information of 50 million users being exploited without their knowledge. A University of Cambridge researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, obtained the data in 2014. The data about the 50 million Facebook users were acquired from 270,000 Facebook users who shared the data with the app “thisisyourdigitallife“. By giving this third-party app permission to acquire their data, back in 2015, this also gave the app information about the friend network of those people, which resulted in information about 50 million users. The app developer breached Facebook’s terms of service by giving the data to Cambridge Analytica.
This group then allegedly used it to target US voters on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This has a potentially hugely negative effect on political discourse. Moreover, a former Facebook manager has warned that hundreds of millions of users are likely to have had their private information used by firms in the same way.
Zuckerberg’s Fall From Grace
For years, Zuckerberg has been hailed as a visionary leader. There was even talk of him running for president. Zuckerberg apologised for the breach of trust. He then promised a thorough audit of third-party apps to make sure it didn’t happen again. But now the 33-year-old, who took five days to respond to the latest crisis, risks becoming nothing more than the face of a sprawling, data-gathering machine. One with a budding reputation for favouring profits over ethics. Zuckerberg has promised to put things right. But no amount of tweaks to Facebook’s privacy policies can get round the fact that the company’s core business model is built on exploiting users’ personal data.
Cutting The Tech Giants Down To Size
If people are bothered about their personal data being exploited, then there’s an easy solution: stop using Facebook. While consumer choice could rein in the company’s practices more effectively than state intervention, it must be remembered that this is not a thriving, competitive market. The sheer dominance of Facebook and other tech giants is crowding out newcomers. In Silicon Valley, new startups don’t even pretend that they will become independent companies. Their business plan is to be acquired by Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft or Apple.
Targeted Political Messages
Originally, Facebook used personal information revealed by its users (now two billion strong) to allow advertisers to target them very precisely. But it rapidly became clear that the system could also be used for delivering
targeted political messages to voters. These messages aren’t easy to spot, as they are disguised to appear like the organic word of the crowd itself. In the words of a Cambridge Analytica executive, unwittingly caught on film:
We just put information into the bloodstream of the internet and then watch it grow… it’s unattributable, untrackable.
That’s the worst thing about the trend towards micro-targeting voters. It not only chips away at the idea of a shared public sphere, but diminishes accountability. Personalised messages can get away with being more provocative. They are also often deliberately polarising, than a campaign message printed on a public billboard that everyone can see and talk about.
Moreover, the company has also been accused of deploying old fashioned dirty tricks. In a Channel 4 News sting, Alexander Nix, founder of Cambridge Analytica, was shown boasting to an undercover reporter posing as in Sri Lankan politician. He suggested that he could whip up sex scandals and fake news to undermine rivals.
This scandal has wiped tens of billions of dollars off the company’s market value. And it has given rise to the #DeleteFacebook campaign. US regulators have opened an inquiry into Facebook’s privacy policies. Specifically, whether the firm violated a 2011 order requiring it to notify users about the sharing of their data with third parties. If the company is found to have broken the 2011 order, it could face fines of up to $40,000 per violation per day. British MPs have called for Zuckerberg to appear before a select committee after Easter, but he has declined to do so. He will send a senior executive instead.
Facebook did tighten its rules in 2015 so that third-party apps could no longer access data on users’ friends without those friends’ knowledge. But that hasn’t stopped the network exploiting such data itself, in ways that also raise concerns. The power wielded by Facebook cries out for more government oversight. Thankfully, a new law is on the way. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). From May, any firm dealing with information about EU citizens will have to show how it has been collected and where it is going. GDPR isn’t perfect, but it’s a decent first effort and other countries may follow.
For me, the issue is not so much about whether having Facebook data enabled Trump to steal the US election. Rather it’s that Facebook has failed to protect the personal data of its users. The company has been unforgivably lax about third-party use of this information. The amount of sensitive personal data available online has exploded in recent years, not just from tech giants, but from data brokers like Experian and Infogroup.
Facebook has arrogantly shirked the responsibilities that come with power, and been wilfully blind to the consequences of its inaction anti problems have reached the headlines. In this brave new world we all ought to tread much more carefully. And this story is a sobering reminder of Facebook’s vast political power – and a wake-up call for governments.