Andrei Rogobete: Reflections on the Facebook Inquiry

 

By most accounts the biggest business story of the week was Facebook’s Senate Enquiry on the issue of privacy and internal practices.  I will keep things brief, but I do believe that there are some highlights and concluding thoughts that can be made from the ten-hour, two-day affair.

For the most part, it was smooth sailing for Facebook’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg as the generational gap became increasingly self-evident. Many of the Senator’s questions were so crude that most millennials could have taken Zuckerberg’s seat and handled them with relative ease. From the fundamentals of Facebook to how social media works in general, it became clear that this is an area completely foreign to them.

In several situations Mr Zuckerberg was so baffled by the questions that it made him unsure whether they were hiding a deeper meaning, or they were that simplistic.  For the most part, it was the latter. I remember being amused as one senator asked, “How can Facebook sustain a business when it does not charge its users for its service?”. To which an awestruck Zuckerberg responds, “Senator, we run ads”.

Such a basic lack of understanding is difficult to justify. The whole point of the inquiry was privacy and advertising. Surely the senators must have had some form of elementary briefing on Facebook beforehand. The problem however is deeper, it’s not just a lack of knowledge but rather a lack of understanding. I wouldn’t blame the senators but the generational gap: it can be difficult to understand Facebook or social media if you have never used it. This does raise serious questions about the quality of policy development in this field.

There were however senators that did indeed corner Mr Zuckerberg on some questionable practices at Facebook. Sen. Ted Cruz pushed on the suspected political bias of Facebook against conservatives. Zuckerberg admitted, “…Silicon Valley is an extremely left-leaning place. This is a concern that I have and that I try to root out of the company – is making sure that we don’t have any political bias in the work that we do.”

Yet perhaps the most effective line of questioning came from Rep. Ben Lujan who grilled Zuckerberg on the question of Facebook’s data-collection from non-users, also known as ‘shadow profiles’. Zuckerberg defended the firm’s actions as preventative measures “for security purposes”. I know this is a stretch, but I cannot help myself in drawing the analogy with so many authoritarian regimes of the past that have also used “various measures” – all in the name of “security”.

 

So what is the bottom line on Facebook and privacy?

Social media is here and is here to stay. Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniack kicked up a great fuss in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and famously declared that he closed his Facebook account. My gut feeling is that the number of people that will follow suit is minimal. For the most part, users are content with sharing some of their data in exchange for a service.

Don’t think that I am just defending Facebook because I am not. Grave mistakes have been made with users’ personal data and this needs to be rectified. However, I wouldn’t lay the blame on Facebook, the social media ecosystem is the main issue here.

Yet the problem is simple: we do not have a comprehensive framework for the handling and management of private data. The industry is too young for both the users and more importantly, the policymakers to fully understand. That’s why I wouldn’t place the blame solely on Facebook. If it wasn’t Facebook, it would be company X, Y, or Z. We are not just faced with a company problem but an industry problem.

In the early 20th Century thousands were dying in road accidents. There was no clear road and safety infrastructure because no one really knew much about road and vehicle safety – the previous generation didn’t have cars, they were a new invention We are at this stage with privacy and social media.

For now, three things need to change: 1. It is up to the consumers voice their demands on privacy issues. 2. Policymakers need a far better grasp of social media and the online ecosystem. 3. Companies like Facebook need to be clearer (from a legal and user interface perspective) on how they intend to use data.

Once this triangle aligns, privacy issues will become nothing more than growth pains of a young but nascent industry.

 


Andrei Rogobete

Andrei Rogobete is a Research Fellow with the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics. For more information about Andrei please click here.