“My top priority has always been our social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together. Advertisers and developers will never take priority over that as long as I’m running Facebook.” -Mark Zuckerberg
That’s one of the many statements our friend Mr. Zuckerberg made before Congress this week, in his apology tour and bar and grilling that he had to endure, again, because Facebook really screwed up, again. Along with his robotic delivery that was nearly devoid of humanizing “um’s” and “uh’s,” statements like this demonstrated just how disconnected he is from what truly happens on the platform he built. Because while “connecting people” may be the surface tension that holds Facebook together, it’s what goes on in the fathoms of ocean below that is the real story – one he and countless other social media platforms do not want to talk about.
To me the true picture of Facebook and its ilk is this disingenuous posture of servitude toward non-paying users, 2+ billion in Facebook’s case, while at the same time cultivating a cesspool of paying customers (advertisers) with a level of permissiveness and lack of supervision that is truly criminal. Because the very business model of any ad-supported site depends upon keeping the advertisers as or more happy than the rubes who flock there to share kitten videos. How? By allowing them to target, micro-target, and nano-target users for their ad content. Which of course is done by gathering as much data as possible about each user. This is dead simple when the users dumbly give up everything about themselves over the course of months or year. Every like, every article shared, every status posted, even every picture uploaded tells Facebook something about that person. Taken individually it’s not much, but taken all together and you have a portrait that is not just useful, but downright gold for any advertiser – or political firm. That’s the realization Cambridge Analytica had, along with many other companies I’m certain – that this data wasn’t just marketing gold, it was vote-getting nirvana. After all, what do campaigns want more than the ability to micro-target voters. These days you can know each household intimately through voter databases alone, but stitch that demographic info together with the “psychographic” profiles Facebook so assiduously collects and suddenly you have a voter database the likes of which have never been seen in American politics. EVER.
Now, the question of whether Cambridge Analytica actually had the technical chops to turn this data into ironclad voter profiles is an open one – I mean truly, who has ever had to analyze and synthesize voter data that is this deeply personal before? It’s a staggering task, whether we’re talking 10,000 profiles or the potentially 87 million profiles that CA managed to scrape up through their illicit collection app. But the fact that this happened shows two things: first, that the very existence of a dataset like the one Facebook is sitting on absolutely guarantees that it will be exploited in creepy and possibly illegal ways. This same principle holds for massive video surveillance networks, U.S. census data, NSA surveillance data, and IRS records. There is literally no way that a dataset that large and tempting is going to be successfully protected from bad actors willing to do anything to exploit it. Nothing in human history suggests we’re capable of that kind of integrity.
Second, no private company whose profits depend upon the continuous collection of personal data should ever be given control of the ultimate dataset. Again, there is nothing in the history of human corporate behavior that indicates this will end well. The real criminal act here is that Facebook refused to acknowledge that their immense aggregation of people’s intimate details was in any way a risk to humanity, society, or governments. No, Zuckerberg and his droids just kept vacuuming up the profits whilst spouting pap about their noble mission to connect people, because with Noble Motives Nothing Bad Could Ever Happen.
Facebook is not a new company – at 14 years old it is now middle-aged in Silicon Valley terms. They had plenty of time to internalize the fact that nefarious acts were certainly happening right under their noses with the data they’d collected. (Were collecting. Will continue to collect until Congress reins them in.) The idea that no one in the company said, “Hey guys, we should really put HUGE safeguards in place to make sure this stuff doesn’t get to Bad Guys” is ludicrous – of course someone said that, they just didn’t do anything about it. Or to be fair what they did was window dressing, because to truly limit access to the data would mean cutting advertisement profits dramatically, since they by definition wouldn’t be giving their paying customers the exact thing that made them pay money in the first place. Facebook’s data is their golden goose – any threat to the goose’s health is a threat to the company itself. On second thought, Facebook is the goose itself – any rhetorical attempts by Zuckerberg to separate “connecting the users” from the advertisements is just bullshit. The former could not exist without the latter, and the latter could not exist without utterly exploiting the former. Such exploitation had to happen in near-secrecy, because nobody who truly understood what they were giving away would have agreed to it. Oh sure, Americas are as cavalier about their online privacy as the Naked Cowboy is about his groinular region, but I think we’ve just seen where the limits of their tolerance are.
Which is exactly why government regulation must happen. There is no force on earth that is going to make Facebook-the-company become a corporate culture of personal privacy protection – it’s going to take a Ronda Rousey-style arm bar by the government to force them, under threat of extreme agony, to submit. Because submission is anathema to everything their survival depends upon. It’s the same way that banks and investment houses need regulation to stop them from doing stupidly greedy and illegal things in the name of obscene amounts of money – if the vampire squid needs to relentlessly jam its blood funnel down the throats of people in order to survive, you’d better believe it’s going to protect that goddamn funnel until its dying breath. Ads are Facebook’s blood funnel – they are the gigantic chute down which money pours. Zuckerberg’s billions are the bins at the bottom of the chute, and the careers of everyone at the company depend upon that chute remaining open and unobstructed.
A major problem here, as evidenced by the Senate’s embarrassing performance in the hearings, is that government is always ten steps behind industry when it comes to recognizing and preventing large scale abuses. Whether it’s the pharmaceutical industry, the tobacco industry, or the financial industry, you’re pretty much guaranteed a ten- or twenty-year head start at least before the dolts inside the Beltway figure out that the world has fundamentally changed and those billionaires giving them money didn’t exactly obtain the funds by being Eagle Scouts. (Sorry to be sexist, but let’s face it, it’s almost always men who are greedy dicks – Theranos notwithstanding.)
I’m still grappling with giving up Facebook permanently – I’ve done a thorough purge of my apps (I had well over a hundred), I’m exclusively using Firefox’s Facebook Container to access the site now, and I’m trying to build up this blog and my Twitter feed as alternatives – but I fervently hope that this moment is a pivotal moment in the history of Americans and privacy. Just as the presidential election awakened a huge swath of the electorate to the flawed mechanics of our electoral politics, so too should the Facebook enablement of (let’s be frank) a stolen presidential election awaken our understanding of how negligent the tech industry and our country has been about protecting our privacy.