For too long Facebook enjoyed the reputation of a benign social network, and its founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, led a charmed life — dodging every new revelation about privacy breaches and its role as a purveyor of propaganda with promises to do better.
But how long can a publicly-traded company evade serious public scrutiny and its leaders remain in charge of a corporation whose 2.2 billion users grow increasingly skeptical of its value? With every headline, every new report, Facebook has become the face of corporate greed — ruthless in its willingness to play favorites among its powerful “partners,” to abuse the data provided by its users, and to serve as an enabler of fake news . . . all for a price.
The sins of the social media giant that were exposed in 2018 alone should be enough for lawmakers, Facebook board members, investors, and advertisers to rethink how the company conducts business:
• The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
• Company records obtained by The New York Times showing Facebook shared users’ personal data with “partners” as huge as Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo.
• A British parliamentary investigating committee that tells a tale of a company willing to shut off the flow of data to starve possible competitors and play favorites by sharing data with those on its so-called “white list” like Airbnb, Netflix, and Lyft.
• At least two serious data breaches in the past six months — one in September that gave hackers access to tens of millions of accounts and a second “bug” disclosed last month that exposed the private photos of some 6.8 million users to outsiders.
The company still insists, “We’ve never sold people’s data.” But how about bartering or trading with its “partners”? Or being simply incapable of protecting the accounts of users?
Facebook’s many transgressions go back a decade. In 2011 the Federal Trade Commission found that as far back as 2009 the social networking service “deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.” In the consent decree that ended that case, Facebook promised basically not to do it again.
That pledge is now in question.
The FTC opened an investigation last spring into whether Facebook violated the consent decree – even as Zuckerberg was insisting under oath to Congress last April that “every single time you go to share something on Facebook, whether it’s a photo in Facebook, or a message, every single time, there’s a control right there about who you’re going to be sharing it [with].”
The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have also opened investigations. The Washington, D.C., attorney general filed suit against Facebook last month , alleging the firm violated the district’s consumer protection act by allowing an app produced by Cambridge Analytica to improperly collect data from users.
And consumers are beginning to rebel via the #DeleteFacebook movement and #LogOutFacebook, a protest by the NAACP “to signify to Facebook that the data and privacy of its users of color matter more than its corporate interests.”
The NAACP protest comes in the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, which documented how a Russian troll factory, set up by the now-indicted Internet Research Agency, used Facebook and Instagram to target African-Americans with anti-Hillary Clinton propaganda and voter suppression efforts.
As the sins of Facebook mount, so too do the calls to “do something” to bring transparency to a world that remains a mystery to many of the political leaders who would ultimately be charged with reining it in via regulation and/or litigation. And, let’s not forget that this is a company that spent some $11.6 million in 2017 to lobby Congress and was on target to spend a similar amount in 2018.
The European Union, now in the process of implementing their General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), has been bolder in its regulatory approach — and far more privacy conscious. The Irish Data Protection Commission (Facebook’s European headquarters is in Dublin) has already launched an investigation of Facebook data breaches abroad. And because the Europeans are taking this seriously, Facebook could face fines of as much as $1.63 billion.
So, yes, fines and legal penalties can be effective. But they are also after the fact.
It is the willful disregard and obfuscation engaged in by Facebook, especially about its information-sharing with “partners,” that cries out for real change — and a hefty dose of disclosure and regulation.
But it seems unlikely that anything will really change without a change in leadership. After all, these many sins were perpetrated on the watch of Zuckerberg and chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. But with Zuckerberg serving as board chair and owning some 60 percent of Facebook’s voting shares, it would take a major push by institutional investors to advance even the modest reform of an independent board chair. Advertisers might also want to make their voices heard on corporate reform. After all, if users start dropping out, what are they buying?
By all means, let’s allow those many investigations here to proceed — and lead at the very least to regulatory reform to protect users’ privacy.
Meanwhile, Facebook users, beware.