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We could have done more, but so could the user – Facebook CEO

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has opened up over the privacy scandal which has gripped the headlines over the last month, but don’t expect the social media giant to change that much.

The briefing, which you can read fully here, was surprisingly open for a man who values his privacy so highly. Admission of guilt was present, but only at arm’s length; as a PR exercise this is pretty much as good as it comes for Facebook. Admit fault, but pass the blame elsewhere.

So far, this would appear to have been a good exercise in damage limitation which could not have come at a better time. Facebook has had to admit it scans messages sent through the Messenger platform to make sure T&Cs aren’t broken while it has also upped the number of impacted users in the Cambridge Analytica scandal from 50 million to 87 million. Some good spin was certainly needed.

Just to be clear, Facebook never actually used the 50 million figure; it came from other sources. 87 million has been put out there as a maximum estimation. By calculating the maximum possible number of friends lists that everyone could have had over the time, Facebook has assumed Aleksandr Kogan queried each person at the time when they had the maximum number of connections that would’ve been available to them. Facebook believes 87 million is the highest the number could go, but is likely to be less.

So what did we actually learn? Facebook admits it could and should have done more to prevent the whole saga. It did not fully appreciate its responsibilities. Changes are being made to developer audits and APIs to try and prevent another privacy debacle. But, Zuckerberg was also keen to point out the user should not blame Facebook too much as we proactively give away our personal information for free.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the whole Facebook privacy saga is Zuckerberg’s personal opinions on privacy. The platform and advertising platform is built on the idea of users sharing personal information and being open to the value-exchange, however Zuckerberg is a very private individual. For such a prominent CEO on the global stage, it is amazing how infrequently he appears to do interviews in mainstream media. The majority of the time, Zuckerberg’s engagement with the world is through Facebook posts, which are controlled exchanges.

Zuckerberg is asking the world to be more open to fuel the advertising machine, but does not necessarily give this example himself. The CEO even bought vacant lots surrounding his property to increase his personal privacy. It does seem to be a case of ‘do what I say, not what I do’.

Note the assignment of blame to the user. This was of course done indirectly and an excellent example of crisis management, but Facebook has turned the focus back onto the user. Why are you happy to share so much information and then blame us? the CEO seems to be asking.

“The vast majority of data that Facebook knows about you is because you chose to share it. Right?” said Zuckerberg. “It’s not tracking. There are other internet companies or data brokers or folks that might try to track and sell data, but we don’t buy and sell. In terms of the ad activity, I means that’s a relatively smaller part of what we’re doing. The majority of the activity is people actually sharing information on Facebook, which is why people understand how much content is there, because people put all the photos and information there themselves.”

We are not too sure how we feel about this statement. Yes, the user has a responsibility to manage his/her online presence, and making sure personal information is shared in a reasonable manner. If you put your credit card information on Facebook, you should expect your bank account to be lower, and should you also make your date of birth public you should also expect birthday promotions from third-parties and advertisers. The user almost certainly has a responsibility, but so does the internet community to educate the user on the advertising machine.

This is what the problem is; the value-exchange. Facebook offers free services to the user, and it should be a reasonable assumption that it will make money off you somehow. Most realise this is through advertising, using the information on your profile to tailor services, but the big data machine is much more complicated than that. Facebook perhaps created this problem because it has not been as transparent as it should have been on how information is sourced and processed to create personalised advertising. This is what has scared and shocked a lot of people; they had no idea about the scale of the big data machine or the granularity of insight. They did not realise what the consequences of these actions were.

The misinformation campaigns scared people. No-one appreciated that by filling out a quiz, this insight could be used to influence the democratic process. The divide in knowledge is incredible, and is the cause of the current uproar.

Zuckerberg does have a point in that we should be more responsible for what information we share online, but Facebook is not innocent here. The incremental steps Facebook (though it is certainly not alone) has taken to shift the norm on what can and should be shared has altered our perception of privacy. The internet on the whole has made us more open, but the industry has not explained the mechanics of big data monetization or the potential consequences.

Who’s fault is this? Who knows. Facebook should have educated us more, but we shouldn’t have been so eager to grab the carrot. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and we were willing to look the other direction.


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