Same old excuses in Facebook's news feed
Fri., April 13, 2018
There was a reason the makers of The Big Short put the actress Margot Robbie in that bubble bath. We all remember this reason.
The Big Short was the filmic adaptation of Michael Lewisâs book about the financial crisis, which, in its more painful details, was a movie about collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps. Ro bbie, sipping from a bottomless flute of champagne as she soaked in all those bubbles, offered up some helpful shorthand that reduced the complex world of manufactured high-risk finance built on the backs of vulnerable home owners to its essence: âWhenever you think subprime, think s---.â
The scene comes to mind in the aftermath of Mark Zuckerbergâs Congressional testimony, which chewed up two days on Capitol Hill this week and triggered an outpouring of social media mockery aimed at the âelderlyâ senators (that was Day 1) asking âgrandpaâ questions of the Facebook CEO. Should there ever be a Social Network ll, perhaps Ms Robbie could be enticed to perform a prÃ©cis of how Facebook works and how far its reach extends.
It will not be amusing.
For all the misplaced criticisms aimed at lawmakersâ attempts to unpack Zuckerbergâs brain â" or push him off script â" the CEOâs testimony told a chilling tale of an immature company seemingly un tended and out of control, scrambling to establish mechanisms aimed at preventing the bad stuff from ever happening again. Are you reassured? You should not be.Article Continued Below
Anyone who bothered to watch the Congressional marathon may, in fact, have walked away wondering: Do I really know as much about Facebook as I think I do?
Consider this exchange between Rep. Joe Kennedy III and Zuckerberg. âCan advertisers in any way use non-public data â" so data that individuals would not think is necessarily public â" so that they can target their ads?â Kennedy asked.
Hereâs Zuckerberg: âCongressman, the way this works is â" letâs say you have a business that is selling skis, OK, and you have on your profile that you are interested in skiing. But letâs say you haven't made that public, but you share it with your â" with your friends, all right? So, broadly, we donât tell the advertiser that â" âHere's a list of people who like skis.â They just say, âOK, we're trying to sell skis. Can you reach people who like skis?â And then we match that up on our side, without sharing any of that information with the advertisers.â
Kennedy: âSo does â" essentially, does â" the advertisers that are using your platform â" do they get access to information that the user doesn't actually think is either, one, being generated, or, two, is public?
Kennedy: âI think one of the rubs that youâre hearing is I donât understand how users, then, own that data. I think thatâs part of the rub.â
The ârub,â as Kennedy calls it, was at issue throughout the two days, with Zuckerberg repeatedly clarifying that Facebook does not âsellâ data. âWe get paid when the action the ad vertiser wants to happen, happens,â he told the joint Senate hearing on Tuesday.
A snapshot of the success of that model: across an eight-year period, advertising revenue exploded from $764 million (U.S.) to approximately $40 billion. Last week, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak added his voice to the âwith Facebook, you are the productâ chorus. Wozniak said he would be deactivating his Facebook account, writing in an email to CNNMoney that âIt should bother all of us how much data they had access to, like profile info that we think is private.â
Zuckerberg wanted us to believe that the company was built with paramount considerations for the user, and user protections. âWe donât build services to make money; we make money to build better services,â he wrote in the companyâs mission statement.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal was only the latest reminder that this was not true. The broken-promises settlement the company reached with the Federal Trade Co mmission (FTC) cites too many allegations to mention, but a few stand out. âIn December 2009, Facebook changed its website so certain information that users may have designated as private â" such as their Friends list â" was made public. They didnât warn users that this change was coming, or get their approval in advance.â
Hereâs another: âFacebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences â" for example with âFriends Only.â In fact, selecting âFriends Onlyâ did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.â
And this: âFacebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.â
Yes, there have been lock-down changes since. (Users can bring with them only their own data, and not that of friends, when they sign up for an app.) But itâs the behavioural pattern Iâm pointing to here, one that clearly does not place the pr ivacy interests of users first, but that makes advertisers very happy.
As for Cambridge Analytica, only now is Facebook launching an investigation into apps created at a time when the company was promising âeasy accessâ for app developers, including Aleksandr Kogan, whose This Is Your Digital Life quiz app created the data set that was then sold to Cambridge Analytica. This is a disturbing time line. Such an investigation, or audit, should have been triggered 2 1/2 years ago, after Zuckerberg learned of the improper transference of personal data. âI expect weâll find some things,â Zuckerberg said Tuesday. Given that Zuckerberg has already acknowledged the âabuseâ of data via other apps, he had better.
Did he notify the FTC? No, Zuckerberg said Wednesday. âIn retrospect it was a mistake.â Were users notified? Nope.
Gallingly, only at the bottom of last weekâs corporate update on restricting data access did the company add as a near footnote: âIn total, we believe the Facebook information of up to 87 million people â" mostly in the US â" may have been improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.â In newsrooms, this is known as burying the lede.
Through all this, no one asked: Where was the board? What did it know and when did it know it? Where was the oversight?
There will be a constituency of readers who will scan this account breathing a sigh of relief for not signing up for Facebook in the first place. The exchange between Rep. Ben Lujan and Zuckerberg will set you straight on this point. Under questioning from the Democrat from New Mexico, Zuckerberg did admit that Facebook, âfor security purposes to prevent this kind of scraping you were just referring to,â collects data on people who have not signed up for Facebook.
There were many pointed questions through the day from all lawmakers of all ages. But perhaps Lujanâs interpretation of Lewis Carroll takes the cake. âCan someone who does not have a Facebook account opt out of involuntary data collection?â
We need to be reminded of such absurdities to think this through. Zuckerberg has been apologizing for years. None of those apologies offers any real answers.
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