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The Facebook data privacy scandal is only tip of the iceberg

Stunning icebergs in Iceland

The digital world has been rocked by the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, but it won’t be the last one; the internet is still the wild-west and it is only human nature to push the boundaries.

A lot has been said over the last couple of days concerning the privacy debacle which we are currently wading through, especially after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence in an interview with CNN. Promises have been made, warnings put forward and apologies have sort of been said, but do not get comfortable, we think this is about to get a lot worse.

While this might sound very pessimistic, we would point to the financial markets. Following the news, Google saw its share price drop, as did Twitter. These are two companies who have similar business models to Facebook, but arguably not as good at it. There might well have been parallel stories developing about these organizations which would effect share price, but we think these are red herrings. Facebook has only been on the receiving end of the flak because it got caught, so you have to wonder what other secrets are lurking in the dark corners of the world wide web. The market could be reacting to the fear of the unknown.

And why can’t these companies act responsibly? Because it isn’t human nature for them to do so.

The internet as we know it today began back in 1991, though the concept has been around for much longer. Many people forget that this revolutionary idea, which defines the very way we live and work today is only 26 years-old. For everything which we have achieved and everywhere we have explored, it is only a fraction of what is possible. Shedding light on these unknown territories will ask new questions of us as technologists and innovators, as well as redefining what is deemed as reasonable and ethical. But the line of right and wrong can only be found when it is crossed.

Those who have children will know this. When a child is growing, new confidences are found and new areas explored. A child is not educated in what is right and what is wrong, therefore natural curiosity takes over. It is only when the child is told not to do something that the boundaries are set and the understanding of wrong can be measured. Those exploring new business models, launching new services and creating new products are effectively toddlers exploring the house for the first time, not knowing what the consequences of their actions will be.

Facebook is currently being condemned for data privacy principles and practises which were in place a couple of years back, and you do have to have some sympathy for Zuckerberg. There was no precedent or guidelines to lean on. The Facebook team revolutionised the way in which we communicate and organizations communicate with us, but crossed a previously undefined line.

Now this is not a company which is innocent. Facebook knew about the abuse of its platform and the unwarranted dissemination of personal information back in 2015 and decided against telling the general public. This should be deemed unethical behaviour from the Zuckerberg and his team, and should quite rightly be punished. Some might suggest Facebook was under no legal obligation to make any announcements, but Facebook is a platform which preaches about trust.

Our trust was broken when this information was used to potentially sway public opinion. This is the ethical line which was crossed by Facebook. Even if it did believe CA had deleted the data, surely it is wasn’t ignorant enough to believe that this would be the only example. If CA used this data to influence the Presidential election surely there are other cases. Some might argue Facebook had a responsibility to make these dark arts known. Worst case scenario Facebook is an indirect and unconscious conspirator, best case scenario Facebook is incredibly negligent and gullible.

The way in which the Trump campaign allegedly used this information will come under scrutiny, partly because he is not necessarily a popular leader. Maybe we should look back further as well. President Obama is one of the most popular leaders in recent memory, but his campaign was credited with being very creative digitally. Are we going to just assume this was all above board because we liked the man?

The trust has been broken but unfortunately this is how the industry has developed. Facebook might have started out as a dream from a college student with the best intentions of helping the world, but it has grown into a profit making machine. Facebook is not your friend any more than the person making your sandwich at lunch. There is a functional (arguably now dysfunctional) relationship which is based on the exchange of value. You are a number in the advertising metrics of the Facebook value proposition, and nothing more. Everything is now about money.

But Facebook is not alone here, hence why we think there are more scandals out there. These are all corporations with a responsibility to investors to make money. Unless absolutely necessary, scandals like this will be swept under the carpet. It will not be too long before these scandals will be uncovered by investigatory reporting, regulatory investigations or whistle-blowers. And that is just the scandals which have already been committed.

The unknown depths of the internet will only uncover more undiscovered lines of right and wrong. The natural curiosity of innovators will push the boundaries of what we can do now, and some of these ventures will result in pain. This is unlikely to change either.

There will be calls throughout the world for regulators to get a handle on the situation, but that is a thankless task. Regulators are struggling to keep up with current trends and understand the here and now; what time, budget or resource can be allocated to problems yet to arise when the problems of today are unsolved?

That is no reason not to explore, but we have to be mature enough to understand that not everything is going to be perfect the first time around. How do you know what is right and what is wrong when you are first person ever to put that foot forward?


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