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New Facebook controversies sprouted up so fast this week it was hard to keep track of them. The social media giant managed to hit the digital scandal trifecta: allegedly exploiting children for money, curtailing transparency, and encroaching on user privacy. All while posting record profits.
First up, last Thursday Reveal reported that “Facebook orchestrated a multiyear effort that duped children and their parents out of money, in some cases hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and then often refused to give the money back.” Essentially, “Facebook encouraged game developers to let children spend money without their parents’ permission — something the social media giant described internally as ‘friendly fraud’ — in an effort to maximize revenues, according to a document detailing the company’s game strategy.”
Then on Monday, ProPublica revealed that Facebook was cutting off its journalists from a tool ProPublica itself had built that allowed the public to better see who is paying for the vast amount of political advertising on Facebook. ProPublica’s searchable database was created in the wake of the massive controversy over how ads on Facebook can influence voters and potentially tilt an election. (It’s also not the first time Facebook has tried to cut off journalists from using tools to understand Facebook’s opaque operations.)
The next day, TechCrunch reported that Facebook was quietly paying people — including teenagers as young as 13 — $20 a month to install a VPN app that would track almost everything those users do on their phones, including calls, texts, and website visits.
Facebook initially claimed it was pulling the app voluntarily. “There was nothing ‘secret’ about this,” the company said in its defense. “It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate.”
As it turned out, the program violated Apple’s developer rules for iPhones, and Apple itself removed the app. Apple also took the extraordinary step of cutting off Facebook’s access to its developer tools, which, according to theNew York Times, caused “chaos among the company’s software engineers.”
It’s hard not to view all these scandals without also acknowledging that Facebook is more profitable than ever. On Wednesday afternoon, the company announced, on its Wall Street earnings call, that it had yet again made record profits for the quarter ($6.9 billion) and its three major services (Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp) have approximately 2.7 billion active users combined.
The lazy response to all of this is to blame the users. “If you hate Facebook so much, why don’t you just leave?” the argument goes.For many people, it’s not that simple. With almost half the world on one of Facebook’s platforms, it’s where everyone’s family and friends are. Most businesses are basically required to have a Facebook presence. In many countries, Facebook is the internet, and WhatsApp is the only way people can communicate digitally.
Zuckerberg has spent 14 years constantly issuing apologies yet not changing how Facebook fundamentally operates.
The reality is, for many people, much more complicated than the tired argument that people are freely giving up their privacy and autonomy because they like oversharing selfies. Survey after survey shows that many Facebook users simply aren’t adequately informed about how the company collects and uses vast amounts of data — or even how Facebook makes its money in the first place. And what they do know, they don’t like, but may not see an alternative for leaving the service, especially if it means completely upending their social and work life.
Pew Research recently published a study which found that “about three-fourths of Facebook users were unaware that the company lists their personal traits and interests for advertisers on its site.” After the Cambridge Analytica privacy scandal last year, according to another survey, “Facebook users’ confidence in the company plunged by 66 percent as a result of revelations.” Yet another survey from earlier this month showed that “approximately 80 percent of Americans agreed they would like Google, Facebook, and other online services to collect less of their data.”
And this lack of trust of Facebook has existed for years. Even in the midst of the Snowden revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013 and 2014, Americans had even less confidence in how Facebook was protecting their privacy than they did in the spy agency. (As I wrote forMedium earlier this month, Facebook has adopted many of the NSA’s PR tactics.)
Now, Facebook plans to merge the backends of its three massively popular messaging platforms — Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram DMs — and integrate them so they will all be able to message (and potentially share data) with each other. As New York Times reporter Mike Isaac put it, “The move has the potential to redefine how billions of people use the apps to connect with one another while strengthening Facebook’s grip on users, raising antitrust, privacy, and security questions.”
Zuckerberg has spent 14 years constantly issuing apologies yet not changing how Facebook fundamentally operates. How many more will he have to issue before Facebook is held accountable? Right now, public pressure has done little to curb abuses, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) — which ostensibly has the power to regulate privacy violations — seems terrified to weigh in, and there’s been almost zero movement on any antitrust inquiries in the United States.
As this last week as shown, Zuckerberg doesn’t even have to apologize anymore. He has a free hand to do what he wants — users be damned.