What We Can Learn From Facebook’s Bad Year

A string of bad news stories about Facebook might have exposed as much about its users as the platform

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at F8 in 2018 via Wikimedia Commons

During his testimony before a Senate committee in April 2018, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was clear about one thing. “This is the most important thing about Facebook: Every piece of content that you share on Facebook, you own it and you have complete control over who sees it and — and how you share it, and you can remove it at any time,” he said.

Zuckerberg’s appearance was the culmination of months of revelations about how Facebook user data might have been accessed by third parties, and — specifically in the case of Cambridge Analytica — what was allegedly done with it. But we quickly learned there was more to be discussed. As the months unfolded, Facebook’s data practices came under closer scrutiny — and few enjoyed what they saw.

Facebook collects data from people who don’t even have an account. Facebook allows users to be targeted with ads, using information they’ve never uploaded to the site. Facebook hired an opposition research firm to try to discredit anti-Facebook protesters. Facebook had a data breach that affected tens of millions of people in which hackers stole ‘access tokens,’ potentially granting them access to users’ personal data. Facebook allowed some apps unauthorized access to users photos — including those they’d uploaded to the platform, but never posted.

And, as we found out Tuesday via the New York Times, Facebook for years “gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules.”

The Times went on:

Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier.

The exchange, the Times reported, “was intended to benefit everyone. Pushing for explosive growth, Facebook got more users, lifting its advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired features to make their products more attractive.”

In a blog post, Facebook stated that “none of these partnerships or features gave companies access to information without people’s permission.”

If Zuckerberg’s remarks to the Senate committee in April weren’t inaccurate, they were at least distracting from the point. The trouble isn’t a lack of control over the things we want to share — the posts, pictures, and information we upload with the purpose of making them public. The trouble is the lack of control we have over the things we don’t want to share, but that keep getting shared anyway.

In the wake of the latest Facebook exposé, questions will once again surface about its attempts to place itself at the centre of modern existence — as the uber-connector, linking us not just to friends, family, and co-workers, but with business, media, entertainment, and government. We will ask how to uninstall it from our lives. We will debate how to change it. And we will mull over potential regulation.

All of which is fine, as long as we don’t forget all the other names on that guilty list the Times revealed Tuesday: other tech companies, yes, but users, too.

Buried in between the lines of Tuesday’s story is a false assumption — one we keep making about necessity. Specifically, that any of the integration scenarios between Facebook and other corporations served a purpose for users. Did anyone actually need to link their Facebook profile to their Netflix account? Did we need in-app messaging (which, by design, would technically allow our messages to be seen by a third party)? Did any of these tools make us truly more connected, or make our world a noticeably better place? The simple answer is no. But we accepted them anyway, assuming their necessity was justified entirely by their existence.

Now that we know why this integration really happened — primarily for corporate growth, and not in the name of a more connected paradise of humanity — we have the chance to objectively weigh how we want to go forward from here.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Ultimately, the lesson Facebook’s trials of 2018 teaches us is this: that we are all complicit in this unfolding saga. It’s a story in which magicians in Silicon Valley conjured the most powerful advertising-based surveillance apparatus ever known, and unveiled it for us as a gateway to techno-utopia. And about how, instead of scrutinizing the specifics of the trick, we lazily believed it, the purported good intentions of the companies who performed it, and the reassurances they continued to give us that it was in our best interest — only to find when the lights came up that we’d been robbed.

Maybe one day, we’ll look back at 2018 as something other than simply the year Facebook had its private affairs publicly aired. Maybe we’ll look back at 2018 and realize that, despite what Zuckerberg thought when he gave his Senate testimony, the most important thing about Facebook is not how you can control what you share on it. Instead, the most important thing about Facebook is that it exposed the magic of the social, sharing web as an enormous and elaborate sleight of hand.

2018 gave us a chance to see through Facebook, and also past it, through the entire modern technological apparatus it has helped build and stands for. We should think of it as a window of opportunity — for escape.


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