Facebook Data Backlash Reveals Tech’s Biggest Challenge: Trust

Mark Zuckerberg is sorry.

Following five days of silence, Facebook’s CEO embarked on a well-choreographed media blitz on March 21 to deal with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. “This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really sorry that this happened,” Zuckerberg told CNN’s Laurie Segall, a message he repeated in interviews with the New York Times and others.

Zuckerberg’s apology tour came after revelations that Trump campaign-linked Cambridge Analytica had siphoned personal data from up to 50 million Facebook users off the platform without their consent. “We will learn from this experience to secure our platform further and make our community safer for everyone going forward,” Zuckerberg said in a statement posted to his personal Facebook page.

Facebook has been through this before. Russian disinformation campaigns leading up to the 2016 election, a murderer publishing a video of his crime on the service, conspiracy theories drowning out actual news: All of this has prompted apologies from executives, and vows to do better. Except, this time around, getting back to business as usual may not be that easy. In the past, Facebook quickly promised simple fixes. Inappropriate content? Just add better filters. Divisive advertising? Hire additional staffers to review ads.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal is more complex. Granted, the U.K.-based data-consulting company did violate Facebook’s policies to get its hands on the information in question. However, Facebook also enabled Cambridge and others to do so by making it far too easy to access personal data without a user’s consent. “Marketers, businesses, researchers and law enforcement were provided with industrial-level personal-information access and advanced-search functionality into Facebook users’ activities, connections and emotional states,” explained Columbia University research director Jonathan Albright.

The company changed some of these policies in 2014. But by then, many others could have used the same approach as Cambridge Analytica to syphon data off the platform. Zuckerberg announced last week that the company would investigate any such case. “I promise you we’ll work through this and build a better service over the long term,” he said.

If it only it were that easy. Facebook generated close to $40 billion in advertising revenue in 2017, largely due to the huge treasure trove of data it’s compiled on its audience. But the company has done a terrible job of telling consumers what it knows about them and how it gets these insights.

The biggest issue Facebook is facing is not this one data leak, but a general erosion of trust. And in that, it is not alone. Media companies may have had a love-hate relationship with the social network. But many of them, and their telecom owners, subscribe to the very same content-monetization strategies for their online businesses, tracking consumers across the web without telling them much about the data they gather, much less about how to opt out of this type of tracking. In the words of the ACLU Massachusetts: “Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon can collect far more detailed information about millions of people nationwide — whether or not they use Google or Facebook.”

Even ad-free media businesses aren’t immune to these challenges. “We have to be able to be honest that not everything about the internet is fantastic,” cautioned Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, who also sits on Facebook’s board, during a recent Q&A session with reporters.

Much like other media businesses, Netflix hasn’t faced nearly the same public scrutiny as Facebook. But the company has at times endured criticism for issues such as its impact on media diversity, as well as possible side-effects of children binge-watching TV for hours. Those experiences seem to have shaped Hastings’ thinking. “Every technology has some great things about it and some less great,” he said. “It’s up to us to figure out how to be a good steward of the public’s trust.”

Finding the right model for this kind of stewardship may just be the single biggest challenge for technology and media going forward. Some have called for more regulation, while others have suggested that a company like Facebook should have an ombudsman who speaks for its users. Whatever the model, the industry better figure it out fast — preferably before the next apology tour.

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