People have social reasons to be on Facebook. These explain both why users value it despite its privacy risks and why they underestimate those risks. It’s time governments stepped in to safeguard public privacy
In 2004 Mark Zuckerberg began Facebook, or The Facebook, as an undergraduate at Harvard University. Its roots lie in a prank played on unsuspecting fellow students. The punchline was how many would blindly turn over their secrets to him. “I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses,” Mr Zuckerberg bragged to a friend. “People just submitted it. I don’t know why. They ‘trust me.’ Dumb fucks”. Even if his pejorative description was half-joking, his insight was real. His teenage precociousness led him to build a vast surveillance machine around the false impression that users have control over what is shared. In truth, Facebook users have little authority over what is shared about them.
For a number of years, Facebook’s asymmetry in control over its users’ personal data was extended to third-party applications. These were allowed to “scrape” Facebook profile information from users who, usually having been lured into playing a game or quiz, consented to giving up not only their data but that of their friends too. Most had no idea that their data had been siphoned off – let alone that it was being used to target voters for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
Facebook has now stopped sharing friends’ data via third-party apps but it has not stopped using such information itself. Now advertisers come directly to Facebook. The reason why they do so is that Facebook’s data is a window into its users’ souls. By assessing a few score Facebook likes, a person’s personality can be more accurately delineated in many regards than it could by even their spouse. Data is Facebook’s gold. People will pay for it. New web technology has created many unexpected ways for corporations to track web activity. But Facebook is a treasure trove of the most intimate data. Why do so many Facebook users entrust it with so much personal information? The answer is that people have social reasons to participate on social network sites, and these social motivations – which revolve around creating an identity, building relationships and being part of a community – explain both why users value Facebook despite its privacy risks and why they underestimate those risks.
Understanding this is vital for understanding why government must have a role in safeguarding public privacy. Given what is emerging, it seems madness to allow Facebook, Google and Amazon direct access to bank accounts. Yet that is what is happening and governments are silent. It speaks volumes that data regulators and election watchdogs cannot conduct investigations speedily into Facebook’s role on this side of the Atlantic.
For Facebook the solution lies with Mr Zuckerberg himself. He has said he wants to give away 99% of his wealth before he dies. Some say he could do so by abandoning targeted advertising on Facebook, which brought in $40bn last year. The chances of a regulatory backlash – in Europe and America – are growing, fuelled by anger over tiny tax bills and antitrust cases. Mr Zuckerberg owns Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram. Such firms may need to compensate people for sucking up their data. Because of its size and reach, Facebook ought to submit to government oversight and critically examine its approach to data. Failure to do so makes it likely that Facebook will end up a regulated utility. Then Mr Zuckerberg could only blame himself for a lack of foresight.