In February 2019 Facebook will turn fifteen, and its founder Mark Zuckerberg has written an oped piece for the Wall Street Journal defending the company’s business practice.
After two years of bad news for Facebook, including revelations that its clients misused user data it provided, the CEO has decided to use the WSJ as an attempt to deflect calls for his resignation.
“Recently I’ve heard many questions about our business model, so I want to explain the principles of how we operate.” Zuckerberg writes in the piece entitled “The Facts About Facebook.”
The internet model of openness is part of Facebook’s playbook, where he explains that the only way that these services are offered for free, is for people to read ads.
That is what got Facebook into trouble in the first place according to critics of the platform.
In March 2018 the New York Times reported that a political firm hired by the Trump campaign acquired access to private data on more than 50 million Facebook users.
Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm, was hired by President Donald Trump’s election campaign in 2016. It gained access to private information of millions of users and then offered specialised custom-built apps that it claimed could identify both the personalities and their behaviour.
Facebook’s response was tepid at the time. First Zuckerberg told users he didn’t believe this was true. When it became apparent it was, he said he didn’t know.
Zuckerberg strongly denied that Facebook had been hacked, but then the company refused to prove or disprove claims it had. It emerged that a professor working at Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre agreed to work with Trump’s team in 2016. Aleksandr Kogan is a Russian-American psychology professor who offered his services when the Centre rejected Cambridge Analytica requests for assistance.
Facebook also admitted Cambridge Analytica had been "certified" in 2013 but that the company had deleted user information on Facebook’s request. But it appears that not all user data was deleted according to the facts that have emerged.
Since 2015 Facebook says its stopped allowing developers access to user data. Up until then it had an open door policy with selected developers, sometimes allowing access to just a name and address, in other cases, full location and friends data was being accessed by third parties.
When confronted about this, Zuckerberg and his Chief Operation Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, said that the fine print on Facebook’s sign up page indicated users did actually agree to this practice.
They say its important for people to get more of what they want and to allow users to experience customised content instead of being fed irrelevant adverts.
Zuckerberg has used the WSJ editorial to defend the customisation of ads for different people.
“So based on what pages people like, what they click on, and other signals, we create categories—for example, people who like pages about gardening and live in Spain—and then charge advertisers to show ads to that category. Although advertising to specific groups existed well before the internet, online advertising allows much more precise targeting and therefore more relevant ads,” he writes.
This also happens to be the main complaint against Facebook, that it profiles users based on their demographics, then spies on the user’s actions by planting a pixel on their browser of choice.
This magically provides Facebook’s algorithms with their main information in order to then customise your online experience. His logic is that if you want something for free, then pay for it by allowing Facebook to spy on your actions.
However, the depth of this spying is now regarded as highly invasive. The Facebook algorithm continues collecting information on you and your friends even if you close the app. The information includes location data, text messaging and images on your smartphones, the wifi signal and name, how well protected your device is against hacking, and your browsing habits.
It then stores this information on its servers in order to tweak your content viewing experience on Facebook.
As Cambridge Analytica proved, this is where abuse begins. The owners of the company cynically abused data in order to offer a tailor-made propaganda service to Russian interests, then defended its action saying the business was a natural progression.
Activists say first you start with people’s information, then you move into making them do things by feeding them a particular bias. That starts with brands and lifestyle, but ends with politics and social engineering for those who would abuse the concept of openness.
WSJ Subscribers like Raphael Avital commented on Zuckerberg’s editorial by saying:
“Mr. Zuckerberg, How about this for a business model: You charge your users exactly One Dollar per year, and no ads, no forwarding of any information to advertisers, no advertising. How's that? How much poorer could you be? Two Billion users around the world = $2 Billion a year, yes, your profits would not be what they are, but your users would be much happier and much more loyal and supportive of you. And here you are, trying to sell me the notion that I must see ads in order to stay in touch with my aunt Martha? How stupid do you think we are? Oh, and please don't try to tell us that your post reviews are not politically motivated and biased, because every single hour of the day you prove that they are.”
Zuckerberg believes the internet allows for far greater transparency and control over ads you see, if you compare the sector to television for example. However, on TV adverts have a strict code to which they must adhere, and the process of running these is finite. That means that there is one channel and only one ad at a time. Facebook ads rotate through a complex mechanism that means one person won’t see the same advert as another at the same time based on how and what they’ve searched for on the internet.
Television also faces regular complaints about ads which each station or network must respond to in a legal process backed up by the region or nation. The openness model which Zuckerberg says lies behind his company’s exploitation of users data does not.
But Zuckerberg also strongly denied selling user information.
“…we don’t sell people’s data, even though it’s often reported that we do. In fact, selling people’s information to advertisers would be counter to our business interests, because it would reduce the unique value of our service to advertisers. We have a strong incentive to protect people’s information from being accessed by anyone else,” he writes.
While he maintains the company is basically innocent, and uses the strategy of suggesting that people are reacting negatively because they “don’t understand complexity”, his critics are calling for intervention.
Users like Rob Barua says the problem for Facebook is that it doesn’t use your data, it sells your data.
“It's true Facebook doesn't sell you data - RATHER they rent it out your data (i.e., likes and interests) so the ADVERTISERS (i.e., users) can influence (or induce) the USERS purchasing decisions.”
Barua also warns that the notion of connecting people as Facebook’s main goal is simply disingenuous and that the company has failed to acknowledge its role in the deaths in Myanmar for example.
The reality is that the Myanmar military and its allies used Facebook and a number of other platforms and mechanisms in order to motivate citizens to back the ethnic cleansing of over a quarter of a million Rohingya Muslims from their countryside and Facebook’s response to this was that it wouldn’t intercede – because the internet is open.
Zuckerberg admits that Facebook is collecting user information but says it is not for malevolent use.
“There’s no question that we collect some information for ads…” he writes “but that information is generally important for security and operating our services as well.”
So Facebook both protects and serves, in the traditional sense, but is not regulated by any checks and balances at all. The openness model has been used by enemies of democracy and freedom of speech and associated in order to track people, murder them, or their families.
Despite calls for him to step down, Zuckerberg has refused to budge. This after initially denying his company was complicit in serious abuses, such as the Russian organised attempt at changing the result of the American election, the abuse of the Rohingya and the attempt by hackers to interfere in both the French and German elections.
He may regret this, of the more than 200 comments to the WSJ editorial, fewer than a dozen supported him and his company’s response to the crisis.
UPDATE - Saturday 26 January
On Friday 25 January Mark Zuckergberg announced plans to integrate the three social networks he ows, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger.
However, staff at WhatsApp have already reacted negatively according to the New York Times, complaining that this would create confusion about the roles of each of the products.
According to the NYT during a conference call with staff in December 2018 where he broached the integration model, his answers to questions about the motive for doing this were "evasive and vague".
It is thought that Zuckerberg may be trying to combine his three platforms to protect Facebook from further action as users would find it difficult to move to alternatives. He may be trying to create a fait accompli situation where he could use opposition by users to further action against Facebook once he'd managed to combine all three platforms.