Friday 14 December 2018

Adrian Weckler - Facebook: Stop breaking things

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

One of the first things you see when you walk into Facebook's Dublin headquarters is a giant poster that says 'Move fast and break things'.

It's designed to give developers heart, to urge them to cast aside their doubts or inhibitions.

Last week, Facebook broke quite a bit.

It broke the patience of politicians and regulators, to be sure. It also broke the sense of complacency that we, as ordinary Facebook users, have in its promise to look after our personal information.

I'm conscious that even after a week of headlines, many people may not have picked up exactly what happened.

So to recap in one sentence: Facebook stood by and didn't clamp down when a company called Cambridge Analytica used personal information from up to 50 million people to target them for the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

While the technical issue at stake is Cambridge Analytica's duplicity, (it turned a personality test database into a political sentiment repository) the underlying problem is a reminder of just how much Facebook scrapes away at our personal lives, turning our daily movements into fodder for ad companies.

It's not yet clear how much we care. The vast majority of pundits and privacy experts say that ordinary people will have been shocked to learn that Facebook 'likes' and preferences are flipped around in this way.

There's also a #DeleteFacebook campaign under way on rival social media platforms, especially Twitter.

But it remains to be seen how many of the two million Irish people who use Facebook every day will suddenly stop using the service.

I'd be surprised if even 1pc do this. Facebook has become too embedded as a utility in our daily lives.

And I simply don't believe that people are as naive and unwitting as experts charge. Every year there are multiple scandals that highlight Facebook's data-sharing proclivities.

I'd wager that the majority of those who use Facebook know that they're giving away monetisable personal information and just don't really care.

What may be different about this case is that the by-product of the illicit data sharing may have been the election of Trump. (Because the ill-gotten Facebook friends information was used to create databases for serving ads.)

This has probably been the real fuel behind the outrage over the issue.

And Facebook's response has been the same as it ever is. Like other big tech companies, Facebook has three stages of dealing with a crisis:

1. Minimise or deny the accusation, claiming no-one else understands the technology.

2. Threaten to sue the publication (as with the Guardian).

3. Back down with phrases such as "We should have done a better job" and "We're now taking action" (as Zuckerberg did after days of Facebook's value falling by €50bn).

That said, some point to conspiracy theories around the controversy.

One is political reaction, which has been curiously lopsided. In the US, the lion's share of the calls for action to curb data-sharing on Facebook are coming from the Democratic Party.

One obvious reason is that the Cambridge Analytica activity benefited Trump in the last election.

But others have pointed out a strategic reason. The Democrats, via the Obama campaign in 2012 and subsequent political initiatives, used very similar techniques to the ones under the spotlight now. At the time, it was regarded as 'innovative', not creepy, because it was helping to elect a good guy.

But the point is that they stole a campaigning march on their Republican opponents. And now that they have all of that information (and retain it), there may be a natural instinct to prevent their Republican rivals from continuing to get access to the same powerful campaigning tools, especially as it clearly works, as in the case of Trump.

This was as much as admitted by the former 'Obama for America' director of integration and media analytics, Carol Davidsen, two years ago.

"The Republicans never built an app to do that," she told the Personal Democracy Forum in 2015.

"So the data is out there, you can't take it back. The Democrats have this information, so when they look at a voter file and someone comes to them, they can immediately say, 'Oh, here are all of the other people they know, and here are people that they can help us persuade, because they are really good friends with this person'.

"The Republicans do not have that information and will not get that information. Now I'm a Democrat so maybe I could argue that's a great thing, but really it's not in the overall process. That wasn't thought all the way through. Now there's a disadvantage of information that to me seems unfair. But I'm not Facebook, so this is the reality."

Remember that the only real hostility to Obama's campaign mining personal data in this way came from a handful of right-wing websites and vocational privacy campaigners (many of whom tempered their anger because of the candidate gaining from it).

But now that Trump is the beneficiary, it's a very different story altogether.

In the UK, there's a somewhat similar context. The most trenchant criticism has come from political parties and media outlets who wonder if the techniques were used to help bring about the political issue they most oppose - Brexit.

By contrast, the Conservative Party and pro-Brexit media have found it harder to articulate the absolute reason why this is such a bad thing - maybe because it hasn't resulted in a political outcome they themselves mind. Even the right-wing newspapers, which hate Facebook and Google for reasons more to do with the advertising market, have not joined in quite as much.

Facebook will remain in the dock. But many of us still don't know where our ultimate privacy line is drawn.

Sunday Indo Business

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