Is Facebook sorry? That was the question posed to me on Saturday night by CBC anchor Aarti Pole, when I was a guest on Canada’s national news network with Huda Idress. Click play below to see my answer. We had a thoughtful 10-minute discussion about Mark Zuckerberg’s 10 hours of testimony before Congress, and whether he there is any effective way for governments to regulate the social media giant. I also brought up the “black check” problem that consumers face when they give data to a company for one purpose, only to find out later that it’s being used for other purposes. We also talked a bit about my column about surprise on Friday, which I’ll excerpt below.
Mark Zuckerberg testified before congress over 2 days – focusing on privacy for users, following the revelation of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal. Is facebook actually sorry? We ask @redtapechron & @hidrees “Facebook has been on an apology tour since it’s inception.” pic.twitter.com/gEqGb9swpm
— Aarti Pole (@aartipole) April 15, 2018
Of all the things Mark Zuckerberg said this week before Congress, I found this the most incredulous:
“I would hope that what we do with data is not surprising to people.”
Everyone is surprised when they find out what Facebook does with data. I’ve been writing about data hacks and privacy for more than a decade, and I’m here to tell you that surprise is the very thing, and often the only thing, that really makes consumers mad. People weren’t really angry that Equifax was hacked; they were surprised, and angry, to learn that Equifax had all their personal information and there was nothing they could do about it. They have been surprised, and angered, to learn that companies with names like ChoicePoint or Axciom exist, and that they hoard consumers’ most sensitive details.
Americans weren’t mad that politicians used online advertisements to support or defeat a political candidate. They were mad that somehow, a company like Cambridge Analytica had even heard of them, let alone had them in buckets like “suburban housewife.” And they were really mad that Facebook put them in these buckets, which most of them never contemplated as they were sharing cute puppy pictures.
Facebook, and most Internet firms, don’t have a trust problem. They have a surprise problem. The element of surprise is the entire foundation of Facebook’s business, and indeed, it’s the foundation of all targeted advertising. Programmers are natural lurkers. They prefer to watch what you do, and use that information to predict what you might buy — ideally, a few moments before you realize you might buy it — and then connect you with someone willing to sell you that thing. This odd triangular arrangement means you are not Facebook’s customer. Advertisers are Facebook’s customers. You are merely the raw material.
I was surprised that the Cambridge Analytica story created the stir that it did. There’s very little in the saga that hasn’t happened before: app makers tricking users; Facebook urging users to overshare, then oversharing with its paying customers; Facebook’s cavalier attitude towards difficult people who care about privacy.
Mark Zuckerberg wanted to make the hearings about topics like consumer “control” and the “sale” of data. All along, I wanted someone to confront him with the element of surprise.
Consumer lawyer and privacy expert Joel Winston is blunt about the surprise in a column for NBC: “On the basis of ten “Likes,” researchers from Cambridge have demonstrated that Facebook knows you better than your work colleagues. After 70 “Likes,” Facebook knows you better than your friends. Accumulate 150 “Likes,” researchers showed, and Facebook knows you better than your parents. Complete 300 “Likes” and Facebook knows you better than your spouse or partner. Record more than 500 honest “Likes” and Facebook can even know you better than you know yourself.”
Your innermost thoughts and urges are a natural resource. Right now, that resource is being exploited by firms like Facebook, just as once upon a time, corporate giants used and abused water and air with little or no consequence.
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