IF THERE IS one message Facebook has been trying to send to the world in 2018, it’s that the company understands it needs to rethink the way it operates. Facebook says it understands that it must better police the content that appears on its platforms. And as a result of the Cambridge Analytica scandal early this year, Facebook says it must be more effective in how it protects user data, more transparent about all the data it collects, and more clear about who has access to the data. CEO and cofounder Mark Zuckerberg said fixing Facebook was his project for 2018, and he said earlier this year that he was dedicating enough resources to the problem that we should expect to see tangible progress as we approached 2019.
Facts have proven to be inconvenient things for Facebook in 2018. Every month this year—and in some months, every week—new information has come out that makes it seem as if Facebook’s big rethink is in big trouble. The billions the company is spending to fix itself, along with slowing advertising growth in Europe and North America, have stalled revenues. Its once high-flying stock price is down 35 percent. Well-known and well-regarded executives, like the founders of Facebook-owned Instagram, Oculus, and WhatsApp, have left abruptly. And more current and former employees are beginning to question whether Facebook’s management team, which has been together for most of the last decade, is up to the task.
Technically, Zuckerberg controls enough voting power to resist and reject any moves to remove him as CEO. But the number of times that he and his number two, Sheryl Sandberg, have overpromised and underdelivered since the 2016 election would doom any other management team. And so for the first time in Facebook’s storied history as a public company, employees, investors, and users are beginning to wonder if the only way to solve Facebook’s current spate of problems is to replace the two of them.
Just since the end of September, Facebook announced the biggest security breach in its history, affecting more than 30 million accounts. Meanwhile, investigations in November revealed that, among other things, the company had hired a Washington firm to spread its own brand of misinformation on other platforms, including borderline anti-Semitic stories about financier George Soros. Just two weeks ago, a cache of internal emails dating back to 2012 revealed that at times Facebook thought a lot more about how to make money off users’ data than about how to protect it.
Now, according to a New York Times investigation into Facebook’s data practices published Tuesday, long after Facebook said it had taken steps to protect user data from the kinds of leakages that made Cambridge Analytica possible, the company continued to sustain special, undisclosed data-sharing arrangements with more than 150 companies—some into this year. Unlike with Cambridge Analytica, the Times says, Facebook provided access to its users’ data knowingly and on a greater scale.
Some companies, like Microsoft and its Bing search engine, had access to all of a Facebook user’s friends without consent. Apple devices had access to the contact numbers and calendar entries of people who had changed their account settings to disable all sharing. Spotify and Netflix had the ability to read users’ private messages. The search engine Yandex was one of the companies with special access, even though it has long been suspected of having special ties to the Kremlin. The Times had access to users’ friend lists for an article-sharing application it had discontinued in 2011—access that lasted into 2017. (The company told its reporters that it was not obtaining any data.) Apple, Netflix, Spotify, and Yandex told the Times they were unaware that Facebook granted them such broad access.
There have been murmurings all year over whether Congress might pass new data protection laws, akin to the GDPR in Europe, or whether the FTC would fine Facebook for violating its 2011 consent decree with the agency. Now it would not be a stretch to wonder if both those things aren’t imminent when the new Congress convenes in January. Already—earlier Wednesday—the attorney general for the District of Columbia decided to sue Facebook for alleged data misuse stemming from Cambridge Analytica. It’s likely to have company in that effort.
Facebook told the Times that no data was mismanaged or misused, that the data was all available publicly, that it considered its partners to effectively be part of Facebook and therefore subject to the same strict rules of conduct, and that as a result it was not in violation of any statutes or its consent decree with the FTC.
Facebook posted further comment in a blog post, authored by Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director of developer platforms and programs: “Today, we’re facing questions about whether Facebook gave large tech companies access to people’s information and, if so, why we did this. To put it simply, this work was about helping people do two things. First, people could access their Facebook accounts or specific Facebook features on devices and platforms built by other companies like Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, and Yahoo. These are known as integration partners. Second, people could have more social experiences—like seeing recommendations from their Facebook friends—on other popular apps and websites, like Netflix, The New York Times, Pandora, and Spotify,” Papamiltiadis wrote.
“We’ve been public about these features and partnerships over the years because we wanted people to actually use them—and many people did. They were discussed, reviewed, and scrutinized by a wide variety of journalists and privacy advocates. But most of these features are now gone. We shut down instant personalization, which powered Bing’s features, in 2014 and we wound down our partnerships with device and platform companies months ago, following an announcement in April.
“Still, we recognize that we’ve needed tighter management over how partners and developers can access information using our APIs. We’re already in the process of reviewing all our APIs and the partners who can access them.”
Zuckerberg and his executives are such masters of this kind of sincere apology, it should have a special name like “apolozuck” (or perhaps just “zucked”). It’s truly rhetoric as art. “We’re sorry. We’re as upset as you are. But that thing you are angry at us about happened a few years ago, and we’ve fixed the problems. They happened because we were trying to make Facebook better for you. But we now see how it left your data vulnerable to bad things too. We care more about your data and your privacy than anyone. It won’t happen again. We promise.”
What has enabled them to deliver these apologies, year after year, was that these sycophantic monologues were always true enough to be believable. The Times’ story calls into question every one of those apologies—especially the ones issued this year.
All year long, Facebook has encouraged the world to believe that a Cambridge Analytica–style data leakage couldn’t happen anymore—that, as Zuckerberg told lawmakers in April, users had “complete control” over what happened to their data. Two weeks ago, after those scheming emails Zuckerberg exchanged with executives about data-sharing arrangements were released by the UK Parliament, Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post that they were taken out of context.
Except it appears now that Facebook has had all manner of data-sharing relationships it hasn’t been telling the world about. “We’ve never sold anyone’s data,” Zuckerberg wrote in his post, and has insisted at various other times this year. But Zuckerberg saying that Facebook has never sold user data is an answer only an engineer could love. It is technically correct, but practically false. Sure, Facebook has never given other companies user data in exchange for cash. But it’s quite obvious to the world now that Facebook for a long time has been giving user data to other companies, in exchange for other equally or more valuable things.
There’s a simple takeaway from all this, and it’s not a pretty one: Facebook is either a mendacious, arrogant corporation in the mold of a 1980s-style Wall Street firm, or it is a company in much more disarray than it has been letting on. Think about almost everything bad that’s happened to Facebook since the 2016 election: Russian interference, Cambridge Analytica, data sharing, astroturfing. Facebook could have kept all of them from becoming scandals—or at least becoming as big of a scandal—had it just leveled with the world when it had the chance. The fact that it hasn’t suggests that it didn’t want to, or it is just not well managed enough to pull it off.
It’s hard to process this without finally realizing what it is that’s made us so angry with Silicon Valley, and Facebook in particular, in 2018: We feel lied to, like these companies are playing us, their users, for chumps, and they’re also laughing at us for being so naive.
We’d expect such deceptions from banks, oil companies, car makers, or tobacco firms. But companies like Facebook built their brands by promising something different. They told us, “It’s not about the money and the power of being a billionaire and running one of the richest companies on the planet—it’s about making the world a better place, making it more open and connected.” And we fell for it hook, line, and sinker.
Americans are weird about their tycoons. We have a soft spot for success, especially success from people as young as Zuckerberg was when he started Facebook. But we hate it when they become as super-rich and powerful as he is now and seem accountable to no one. We’ll tolerate rogues like Larry Ellison, founder and CEO of Oracle, who once happily admitted to hiring investigators to search Bill Gates’ trash. Ellison makes no effort to hide the fact that he’s in it for the money and the power. But what people despise more than anything is what we have now with tech companies in Silicon Valley, especially with Facebook: greed falsely wrapped in sanctimony.
Facebook gave the world a great new tool for staying connected. Zuckerberg even pitched it as a better internet—a safe space away from the anonymous trolls lurking everywhere else online. But it’s now rather debatable whether Facebook is really a better internet that is making the world a better place, or just another big powerful corporation out to make as much money as possible. Perhaps the world would be happier with Zuckerberg and Facebook, and the rest of their Silicon Valley brethren, if they stopped pretending to be people and businesses they are not.