Thoughts on the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica scandal


There's such a lot of knee-jerk reaction to the whole Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle, least of all the #DeleteFacebook movement, that I couldn't help play Devil's Advocate while chatting about it with a colleague this week. I can see myself having this debate again, so in preparation, here are my thoughts:

Yes, it's totally evil how Facebook mine every ounce of our personal data for monetary gain, and even more totally evil that Cambridge Analytica used this data to to try and take over the world or something. However - companies like Facebook have to make their money somewhere, and I can't believe there's anyone left in the Western World who hasn't heard the phrase, "if you're not paying for a product, you are the product". True, some people might not realise just how invasive and insidious some of this data mining goes, and Facebook have clearly crossed a line by sharing so much data with so many untrusted 3rd parties, but surely no one who reads the mainstream press is surprised by any of this? Particularly those who are vaguely tech-savvy.

Contrary to my first paragraph, I don't really believe that Facebook are uniquely or unusually evil here. I just think they are the biggest and most successful, so have access to soooo much data. They are also able to reach and influence soooo many users. Sometimes marketing companies buy this data to try and sell us targeted ads for sports shoes, but sometimes more nefarious organisations use this data to try and influence national elections. I imagine this level of influence even surprised some people at Facebook (actually, I doubt it - I dare say they knew exactly what was happening, but cynically chose to turn a blind eye). Regardless, it happened because it's profitable, and that's the primary reason companies like Facebook are in business (it's certainly their sole responsibility to their shareholders).

To reiterate - I'm by no means a Facebook apologist, but I think they look so bad right now mainly because they're so huge. There are multitudes of organisations out there with far worse attitudes to data protection than Facebook, they just don't get get the same degree of publicity and scrutiny because they're not so well known. But anyone who reads the tech/security press knows the horror stories, organisations that makes Facebook look angelic in comparison.

I don't think destroying/deserting Facebook will make any difference. Another company will take their place, and when they become huge they will need to monetise their users, and the same thing will happen again. This stuff is cyclical: plucky little underdogs get popular, grow big, become the establishment, become hated, and eventually get usurped by the next trendy underdog - rinse n' repeat. But I don't think it changes the fact that users will always want some form of social networking platform, and they don't seem to like paying for stuff they've grown used to receiving for free. They also seem to be happy to trade personal info and privacy for great functionality and reliable mobile apps (neither of which I believe Facebook provides, but there you go).

Actually, I think Facebook's downfall is most likely to come from its increasing irrelevance to the younger generation (who already perceive it as a network for old people), but that's a different story...

An alternative future could see a tidal shift in the public's attitude to data privacy, to the extent that they're willing to pay for a social networking service. If that happens, such a service could market itself as the bastion of personal data protection, all for a monthly fee. But I think that's an unlikely future, we increasingly seem to be living in a "post-privacy" age (educating teenage offspring on this issue is not a parenting task I had envisaged all those years ago...).

Instead of destroying Facebook, or whatever replaces it, maybe the best thing we can do is to accept it as a necessary evil, and to try and control the beast? In the form of regulation, government oversight, etc.? I'm no fan of the the political classes (of any colour), but it seems that government types are finally realising the magnitude of this stuff, and trying to impose a greater degree of scrutiny (it remains to be seen how successful they will be). And Zuckerberg himself seems to be inviting this (in a PR effort to close the barn door after the horse has bolted).

Perhaps an ideal world would be one where everyone controlled their own data, but were able to share/communicate via easy to use open protocols. There are plenty of well established and robust open protocols that we use every day for communicating via email, real-time chat, web syndication, etc., I don't think it's a technical challenge to come up with a social networking protocol that replicates the functionality of Facebook and its ilk. No doubt many such protocols already exist - it's a problem of adoption, not technology. (I haven't looked at the Diaspora project for a while, but I seem to recall that's what they were trying to achieve. I presume there are others.)

So there we are. Nothing super insightful, just wanted to offer my own slightly world-weary thoughts on the whole messy business, and to offer a counterpoint to the knee-jerk Facebook bashing that seems to be the default position in the current conversation.