Exposing the realities of our relationships with Facebook and other social platforms

This week has been an extraordinary one, not only for Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and members of the US Congress but also for users of Facebook and other social networking platforms wherever they are in the world.

Indeed, it has been a week of revelation and food for considerable thought on a grand scale.

During two days, on April 10 and April 11, the Facebook co-founder and CEO appeared before members of the US Senate and Congress to answer questions about Facebook and how it handles the personal information of its users. These appearances follow news headlines for weeks about the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica data scandal and undercover reporting-driven disclosures about grave misuse of the personal data of millions of users.

Each session was around five hours; both were broadcast live on television and myriad social media channels, reaching a truly global audience. You can read transcripts of each session (Senate | Congress) if you want deep dives on (searchable) word-by-word accounts.

What can we make of this reality TV-type of event in the Trump age of soul-baring declarations, including apologies, by politicians and business celebrities? While it’s clear that what happened at Facebook regarding users’ personal data has caused widespread outrage at such an egregious breach of trust and ethics, will anything actually happen as a result of this?

One thing that could be a catalyst is next month’s GDPR regulation in European Union law that spells the end for what the Harvard Business Review calls “the Internet’s Grand Bargain” on data protection and privacy:

[…] the U.S-based content industry largely has itself to blame for the EU’s draconian new rules, as well as those now being reconsidered at home. Internet companies have had over a decade to integrate basic data collection and use safeguards into their operations, including limiting the data they collect and adopting international information security standards. These efforts have mostly failed. Today nearly 40% of all cybersecurity incidents involve insiders, not hackers.

Regulation of Facebook (a point I speculated on in my post last month about the data scandal) is a topic that governments have started talking about more. In his session with congressmen on April 11, Mark Zuckerberg even suggested that regulation might be “inevitable” for Facebook and other such companies:

“The internet is growing in importance around the world in people’s lives and I think that it is inevitable that there will need to be some regulation,” he said.

Be sure that a debate on this and every related topic will be deep and wide in scope and scale, once it gets underway. When would that be? “Soon” :)

A Deal with the Devil

While we can be outraged at what Facebook has let happen, all of this is only one part of the picture. The other part concerns that group of people known as ‘users’ – the people who signed up to Facebook and use it as a means of connecting with others, sharing news and experiences, discovering new things and new friends, etc.

There are more than 2 billion such people worldwide. I’m one.

When it comes to data protection and privacy – that’s our data and our privacy – what role do we have in this sorry saga? When it comes to agreeing the rules of the game – terms and conditions of use, agreeing to privacy policies, cookies, data sharing, it’s a long list – what’s our responsibility before we hit that ‘Sign me up!’ button?

Here’s the New Yorker shining a spotlight on our failure:

We’ve known the dangers of Facebook for years. We certainly knew of them before social media, with and without Cambridge Analytica, twisted and fractured the political information that ultimately led to the election of Donald Trump […] It’s not like we weren’t told that using Facebook could have serious consequences for our digital privacy. They wrote on the wall at Facebook that they were going to break things. What did we think they were going to do?

The dream of a world of total connection has resulted in unprecedented alienation. The dream of a world of instantly accessible knowledge has drifted into stupidity and lies. We blame Zuckerberg because we can’t stand to blame ourselves. The truth is that we made a deal with Facebook; we gave up our information for free. Unable to bear our own responsibility for the world we have chosen, we have turned the technologists into monsters we can blame.

So we knew the dangers yet still we signed up. Did we read those t&c and privacy and cookie policies? Like hell we did! Gimme free access, now!

And the deal the New Yorker mentions, along with the “Grand Bargain” the Harvard Business Review talks about, look so much like a deal with the Devil, a Faustian bargain. So let’s apportion blame every which way. It isn’t equally shared – we trusted Facebook, after all, no matter how blindly or foolishly.

And while we wait for the politicians, the regulators, the business people to actually agree on what’s next – not only for Facebook but also other platforms such as Twitter, Google, Amazon – let’s make some suggestions including on what each of us can do right now.

Start with the five points suggested in the Internet Society’s call to action, embracing:

  1. Fairness
  2. Transparency
  3. Choice
  4. Simplicity
  5. Respect

Let’s work on a better deal. We can do it if we have a mind to.

(Disclosure: I mentioned the Internet Society in this post, so I should also mention that I’m the Social Media Strategist at the Internet Society. Not that this has any effect or influence on what I’ve written, but disclosed nevertheless.)

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.