Facebook cleary will not fix itself
Mark Zuckerberg in 2006: “We really messed this one up. . . . We did a bad job of explaining what the new features were and an even worse job of giving you control of them.”
Zuckerberg in 2010: “Sometimes we move too fast. . . . We will add privacy controls that are much simpler to use.”
Zuckerberg early this year: “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. . . . There’s more we can do here to limit the information developers can access and put more safeguards in place to prevent abuse.”
Zuckerberg this week at the Senate hearing on Facebook’s failures regarding privacy, fake news and foreign interference in elections: “It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook. I run it. And I’m responsible for what happens here.”
Well, that makes us feel a whole lot better. Zuckerberg wisely dressed up for the grilling but still issued kid-in-a-T-shirt apologies.
Facebook has delivered Zuckerberg a net worth of over $60 billion — and that includes the big drop in wealth during the recent corporate troubles. He thus could have given a pass on some of the less savory schemes for monetizing the “friends'” information without much impact on his lifestyle. Sure, there’s money to be made vandalizing democracies, but he and Facebook would have done fine without it.
Given over a decade of childish promises to do better, the company has clearly shown it isn’t into fixing itself. Some of the senators threatened regulation, but saber rattling is, in the end, only noise.
By contrast, the European Union has approved impressive new rules for tech companies and the information they trade in. The law will require them to obtain consent for use of personal information in simple language. (Users shouldn’t have to take a night course to understand privacy and security settings.)
The companies will have to notify users of a data break-in within 72 hours of its discovery. They’ll have to give up monopoly control of the personal information; people will have the right to obtain a copy of their data and share it with others.
Zuckerberg has said Facebook will honor the European regulations and intimated he will apply them worldwide. Just to be sure, American lawmakers should copy and paste what Europe has done — perhaps dialing back on parts that verge on censorship. Hate speech enjoys some First Amendment protections.
Zuckerberg has defended the company in the past by insisting that Facebook is a platform and not a media company. In other words, it provides the truck for transport and is not responsible for the zombies, vampires and reptiles that climb on board.
He’s retreated somewhat on that excuse, but there is something to it. To the extent that Facebook is only a platform, it can be easily replaced by others. Facebook’s success comes from a design that draws in billions of users. This is a triumph of marketing and psychology, not building an enormous infrastructure. The social media entrepreneur doesn’t have to punch a railroad through the Rockies.
Many of us have a need to connect and share. But expecting much privacy in a business model that relies on selling your information is highly unrealistic.
A social network could be funded by cheap subscriptions. App-based Vero already operates on this model.
Tech investor Jason Calacanis has set up a contest — the Open Book Challenge — to a create a Facebook replacement. Finalists will be given $100,000 and residence in a 12-week incubator.
At the end of the day, though, people should all know that nothing they put online is totally secure from inspection. That Facebook created a mega-mall to sell your data is simply the extreme. That Facebook is not going to change its stripes is obvious.
* Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist. She can be reached at fharrop @gmail.com or follow her on Twitter @FromaHarrop.