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When a company is caught engaging in as many unethical practices as Facebook has, it really takes something to shock people. But Tuesday, a bombshell New York Times investigative report took things to an entirely new level of scandal and outrage. Facebook has been acting as an industry broker for access to allegedly private user information, according to the Times.
Amazon got permission to obtain our contact details from our Facebook friends, Yahoo got to view our friends' posts, and Microsoft got our lists of friends. And finally — the big one — Facebook gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read our private messages. (Some companies said they used the data appropriately; Netflix said it didn't access the messages.)
Before we go any further, let’s establish one thing. Mark Zuckerberg lied to the Senate during his April testimony about Cambridge Analytica. When Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nevada) asked the perspiring CEO if Facebook was “more responsible with millions of Americans’ personal data than the federal government would be,” Zuck not only said yes, but he also argued that Facebook takes this responsibility more seriously than the government ever could.
“When organizations do surveillance, people don’t have control over that,” Zuckerberg told the Senate. “But on Facebook, everything that you share you have control over.”
Not true, regardless of what legalese regarding user data-sharing is lurking within Facebook’s "Terms and Policies." We don’t get to “opt out” of sharing private messages with Zuck’s fellow tech titans. The surest way to avoid this would be to opting out of Facebook’s private messaging system altogether, which kind of defeats its overall purpose. And even that might not be enough, given that Facebook has tried to defend itself by arguing that any user-generated content is fair game for disbursement to partners. This is the angle Facebook will likely take when fighting a just-filed lawsuit from Washington, D.C.’s, attorney general, which alleges that the company misled users by allowing them to download Cambridge Analytica’s infamous data harvesting app without warning users about the implications.
That Zuckerberg had the gall to misrepresent the truth — and to let his colleagues read our most intimate communications — speaks to Facebook’s unchecked power and scale. The social media company is a juggernaut in today’s business landscape, which is a more dangerous place for consumers thanks to decades of deregulation orthodoxy propagated by right-wing think tanks and elected officials. Facebook's growth has become virtually inescapable. You need a Facebook account in order to use Instagram, WhatsApp or even Tinder. The lack of options also traps Facebook users who rely on the social media platform to stay in touch with friends and family who live far away.
Users should always be able to knowingly agree to sharing "private" information.
Earlier this year, I suggested that concerned readers with the privilege to delete their Facebook accounts do so in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. I had no illusions that people would actually do this en masse, but I wondered if even a slight migration of users might cause tremors. In retrospect, and especially in light of this week’s Facebook scandal, it’s resoundingly clear that a Facebook exodus is not the solution.
Facebook needs to be regulated by the federal government. Consumers alone are not powerful and organized enough to effectively take on the social media giant. But the government has the ability to break up Facebook’s monopoly power, impose strict rules that would better protect user privacy and punish Facebook leadership for violating millions of users’ trust and for lying to the elected officials who represent the interests of those users.
So what does this look like?
The first and most elementary step toward regulating Facebook is getting Congress on the same page about what’s actually wrong with Facebook. Because here’s something I realized watching Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony back in April — a lot of our elected officials don’t really understand how connective technology works. The hearing felt like a tutorial for senators like Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who at one point asked Zuckerberg, “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”
Unfortunately, being fluent on the issues that shape our lives isn’t a prerequisite for Congress. But one thing that might help politicians pinpoint the real problem with Facebook is staffing the House Judiciary Committee with representatives who do understand the ethics of data privacy. The Judiciary Committee will soon be chaired by Rep. Jarrold Nadler (D-New York). Nadler knows a thing or two about tech, having been a reliable proponent of net neutrality and an ally for the East Coast’s tech industry during its more nascent days. It wouldn’t hurt to phone his office and ask, “What are you doing about Facebook?”
But the most important step toward holding Facebook accountable for its behavior is going to be ratifying new anti-trust laws to break up the company’s monopoly power — which would open up the field for competition and weaken Facebook so users could migrate. This would almost certainly catalyze a behavioral change within Facebook. But just to be sure, Congress should impose some updated rules about user data privacy and consent to share. Users should always be able to knowingly agree to sharing "private" information.
Ideally, the new rules would also target the tech industry’s slimy practice of obfuscating crucial caveats on privacy and consent within the dense "terms and conditions" that users must accept. Most people use social media like Facebook on good faith that the companies aren’t going to screw them. A bit naive? Sure, but our government doesn’t exist to say, “You should have known better, fool.” The point of government, in theory, is to protect people from harm. New anti-trust laws and regulatory measures to prevent another Facebook scandal are necessary to uphold that mission.
Finally, Congress should summon Mark Zuckerberg back to Washington, D.C., and this time, it should be for a perjury hearing. Lying to Congress carries a maximum prison sentence of five years. Imagine the CEO of Facebook looking down the gauntlet of such punishment.
The “likes” would be innumerable.
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