Facebook is facing the perfect political storm, and much of it is well out of their control. I’m not talking about Facebook’s policies when it comes to allowing third party companies to data mine its users nor am I really talking about Cambridge Analytica as this was simply the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. No, these issues speak to something larger that Facebook must finally adapt to: the society it caters to, and profits from, is beginning to awaken and understand that when they’re using free apps and services online, the people themselves are the actual product. Like the #MeToo movement, people are seeing how they’ve been wronged and are finally reacting in way that ensures corrective action in society. This is Facebook’s reckoning. The question, then, is whether Facebook’s business model is sustainable in the wake of such change and how its adaption to present changes transforms how these companies safeguard our privacy.
For years now, data collection and the issues surrounding it have been at the center of Facebook’s world. In 2011, the Federal Trade Commission settled an ongoing case with Facebook that was based on the charge that Facebook was deceiving its users by failing to keep promises of privacy. Past this, as Facebook has kept growing in size and wealth, not much changed. Cambridge Analytica was old news to industry watchers when the bombshell report came out in March. While it may be forgotten now, in 2015, The Guardian and other outlets reported on Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his hiring of Cambridge Analytica to use their vast information and psychographic database to target potential voters for his upcoming 2016 Presidential election bid.
Facebook’s data problems weren’t just limited to Cambridge Analytica. Technology reporters have reported on a slew of other privacy concerns. Facebook has built one of the largest facial recognition and biometrics on the planet and even shares it with the FBI. They know where you most of the time and also understand who you talk to the most both inside and outside of the Facebook App. I could go on and on here but I think the point is clear here: Facebook loves everything about their users because they can and will sell everything about them that they can.
So why then is this now becoming a major issue to the point where there is a movement of people, and even other tech giants like Elon Musk deleting Facebook accounts? It’s because, finally, after years of app myopia, we are living in the age of awareness. Consider that we have seen an involvement in societal direction and change for the last twelve to eighteen months in a way that rarely shows itself in a well-functioning society. The current presidential administration has sparked involvement in political activism right from the start of their tenure. Judging by the over three million hits for “25th Amendment” and “Trump” writers from almost all news sources have been busy informing their curious public as to how to remove a sitting president through the law. Meanwhile, Harvey Weinstein was the last straw for a movement that had been building for years and rightfully called multiple predators to task for their horrific behavior. After years of Americans hearing about and witnessing school shootings since the Columbine Massacre in 1999, Parkland was the tipping point that brought modern outrage on school shootings together with political activism which continues with one of the largest marches Washington DC has ever seen. America’s societal issues has now created this cloud of distrust in institutions as well as a desire to change. This is being supercharged by the ability to instantly coordinate and organize in way that is unprecedented in the history of the world thanks to the internet. Is it any wonder that Facebook, and the tech industry in general, is now facing criticisms from those they have wronged?
But like with guns and with sexual harassment, this movement will not be confined to just Facebook. The new pro-privacy movement that has been started will probably spread to other providers of “free” services. Google has been caught turning on microphones in the past, not to mention that at least some of their employees have full access to user’s data and have unfortunately used it. Likewise, Apple has been caught sending call history of various apps users have installed in their iPhones to Apple’s servers even if the iPhone user has turned off backups. Similarly to Facebook, Snapchat settled multiple Federal Trade Commission charges that their claims of privacy were false as Snapchat wasn’t actually deleting pictures of the users as promised, much to the detriment of a slew of teenage girls who had photos exposed. At this point virtually every major tech company with a popular app is playing two games of simultaneous Russian Roulette with our privacy and also their ability to deliver on their promises of privacy. Thus far any promises of privacy have flown in the face of what their actual business model is; selling our information to others.
Cambridge Analytica may be the culprit here for weaponizing private data without the user’s knowledge or will but it’s Facebook’s business model and loopholes that created the infrastructure that allowed for exploitation based on their own monetary gain and they have to own that. The other tech giants are all watching this unfold and taking notes on what to do, or not do, when the scythe of the movement points at them.
So here’s to finally getting traction on a deeply problematic situation that has the general public has been ignoring for years. Thanks #MeToo—it’s greatly appreciated.