Thursday 27 July 2017

John McGee: Facebook must match its power with responsibility

'Let's be clear about something: Facebook is a media company despite its many denials in the past. The company's business model is predicated on attracting as much advertising income as possible to its platform. Last year this amounted to a whopping $26bn.' Photo: Stock
'Let's be clear about something: Facebook is a media company despite its many denials in the past. The company's business model is predicated on attracting as much advertising income as possible to its platform. Last year this amounted to a whopping $26bn.' Photo: Stock

John McGee

Back in 2004, a friend bought a camera online after he scoured numerous online vendors looking for a particular Pentax camera he had his eye on for several months. Having settled on a particular online store which had advertised on Google, he bought and paid for it online.

Although five weeks had elapsed, there was no sign of the camera and after several emails were exchanged with the vendor, it arrived 10 weeks later. But it wasn't the model he had paid over €700 for, and to compound his misery, he was told it wasn't the real deal when he brought it to a reputable camera shop to have it checked out.

When he tried contacting the vendor his emails went unanswered and the online store had, quite literally, shut up shop. When he parked his tank on Google's lawn and vented his ire, he got nothing other than a faint acknowledgement of sympathy.

Back in 2004, you could buy more counterfeit goods online than you could shake a stick at. Handbags, clothing and perfume purporting to be from major international brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Gucci, right through to pirated music and software, could be bought at the click of a mouse. Fast forward 13 years and not much has changed. The internet is still a veritable Wild West and you can still buy pretty much anything you want online.

Despite a proliferation in legislation ranging from the USA's Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the EU's Electronic Commerce and Copyright directives, online companies like Google and, more recently Facebook, are constantly fighting an uphill battle to ward off the scammers and counterfeiters. In fact, it's probably never been easier for these unscrupulous operators to sell you something, drop a malicious cookie on your PC or steal your personal data.

Three examples of this over the past few weeks only confirm this.

The first was a competition on Facebook which claimed to be celebrating Aer Lingus' 48th anniversary and was offering free tickets to people who answered a simple quiz. If they provided their personal details at the end of it, they would receive two free tickets. I mean, what could go wrong? While it looked like it was being promoted by the airline, it wasn't.

It was just a simple exercise by a scammer to get people to hand over personal information about themselves and, presumably, the many people they shared the competition with. The length to which scammers will go to add a semblance of authenticity to their efforts is mind-boggling and typically entails hijacking other brands to achieve this.

This was borne out by two other recent examples I stumbled across, including a competition to win Lidl vouchers which looked like it was being promoted by Independent.ie, the online arm of INM, publisher of this newspaper.

The other was a link to a carefully mocked-up but fake landing-page that looked like it was on the IrishTimes.com website which promoted an illegal HD streaming service.

Imagine if a reputable newspaper like the Sunday Independent or a broadcaster like RTÉ facilitated the dissemination of advertising that was misleading or at worst designed to dupe people into parting with money or their data? Yes, there would be uproar and, quite rightly, they would be taken to task for doing so.

Unfortunately, in the case of Facebook, these kind of scams are all too common and despite the fact that the company knows that it is facilitating scammers, it appears powerless to stop them. And when it does, it's usually too late as the people perpetrating them have moved on to concoct another scam elsewhere.

This begs the question why Facebook allows this to happen and why it doesn't have the appropriate checks and balances in place to protect its users from unscrupulous behaviour.

Already under fire for facilitating the dissemination of fake news and over-reporting key advertising metrics, the company clearly needs to clean up the murky and often crappy advertising experience that confronts users on a regular basis.

Let's be clear about something: Facebook is a media company despite its many denials in the past. The company's business model is predicated on attracting as much advertising income as possible to its platform. Last year this amounted to a whopping $26bn.

While user-generated content still sits at the heart of this business model, the company also depends heavily on media companies to supply it with content to fill the timelines of these users. More tellingly, it also spends millions of dollars every year buying in content from other media companies for its platform.

If it walks like a media company and talks like a media company, then it's fair to say it definitely is a media company.

But in the current media environment, distribution and control of vast amounts of data within the walled garden that is Facebook is just as important as content creation and this is where Facebook wields considerable power in the global media space. But with enormous power, comes even greater responsibility and it would appear that this is something Facebook is seriously struggling with at the moment.

It's now time for it to step up to the plate.

Contact John McGee at john@adworld.ie

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