Regarding recent scandals and the search for solutions
Faced with recent scandals regarding the use of personal information about millions of Facebook users to tailor electoral propaganda in United States and to influence the vote regarding Great Britain exit from the European Union, it is worth asking which is Facebook responsibility to society and its users. In this scandal, the main user of, allegedly private, information, was the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica on behalf of clients that included people and institutions that wanted to favor one side in United States elections and in the Brexit vote (in this article, we do not analyze Cambridge Analytica irresponsibility).
Much will be argued whether what this company and Facebook did was illegal, but what is true is that it is illegitimate and very likely unethical. And here is the crux of the matter. Which is Facebook responsibility to society? Abide by the law? Last April 10th, in his testimony before United States Congress, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook CEO and founder, apologized and acknowledged the mistakes; he said: “We did not take a broad enough vision of our responsibility and that was our big mistake.”
Then, the question appears: Where does Facebook responsibility lie? Experts on this subject know that the responsibility to the society has its minimums, but has no maximums and that is something highly dynamic, it depends on the context of the corporation, moment in time, context of markets in which it operates, technological advances, society’s expectations, among other aspects.
In fact, the responsibility of a corporation such as Facebook extends to other wider and different issues than those of traditional corporations. To understand this, it is necessary to analyze its business model, particularly its “product,” that in this case is less tangible. At first sight, Facebook product is a platform where users exchange information, it is a “service” provided by this corporation. But, what do users pay for this service? In principle, this service seems free, but as the popular saying goes “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” Many users think it is free, they do not know how much and how they pay for this service. Some (very naïf) users, when they learnt about the scandal, made statements such as “I did not know they used my conversations, my photos, my friends, who I am, my likes, my friends’ characteristics.” Many believed, and still believe, that Facebook restricted and just restricts itself to placing an information exchange platform at society’s service.
In the digital era, the most valuable product is information, and that is the price paid for the “service”: giving Facebook information.
And there are many more who still do not understand what can be done with trivial information uploaded into the platform. It seems harmless information. What is wrong with that? What can they do with that? We are used to making a search in Google and immediately receiving ads about what we have just seen, or being asked to upload a photo of the place where we are, or that it tells us how many minutes away from home we are (it knows it, despite being less accurate, even if you had turned off the locator).
But Facebook, with access to massive amounts of data, manages to infer plenty about each of us. Each piece of information seems irrelevant, but the aggregate and the interactions among millions of users is a rich information mine. Facebook derives value from it through the algorithm that combines all the information to know our tastes, values, what we own, where we are, where we have been, love relationships, friendships, what we have bought, preferences, customs, location and even our political inclinations. And we have given them authorization to use it when we joined as members (or we have not denied it). It knows us better than our friends and families.
This is a case of responsibility to society much different than that of the large majority of corporations. Its product is not something given to the client, but rather something that the client gives Facebook: his/her information. It is the reverse of a traditional corporation which gives us something in return for the money we pay. In the case of companies such as Facebook and Google the payment is in kind: our information. Therefore, the most material aspect (in the sense of the sustainability matrix) is not the platform’s responsibility, the material aspect is what it does with what users “pay” for the service, that is the information that explicit or implicitly they provide Facebook.
What Facebook does has been happening in marketing since immemorial times, through surveys, opinion analyses, expression of buyers’ preferences, etc. The difference between traditional marketing and Facebook is that the latter does this in a massive scale, using more than 100 categories of information about each of us, and frequently without the knowledge and consent of information providers. They make macro-surveys about millions of people, unnoticed, and then they tailor the analysis for their clients regarding how to access users of interest. Facebook does not sell rough information; it uses it to sell it processed to institutions that want to capture specific persons.
In the case of Oxford Analytica, it got access to information using the results of a psychometric investigation carried out by a professor, allegedly for academic purposes. They obtained detailed information about 87 million people, without violating Facebook policies or hacking their information system. It was a trust violation done by the academic researcher. He made a short survey where he asked to log into Facebook to answer the questions, thus, he had access to the information respondents had on their Facebook profiles plus that of their friends (including information on Mark Zuckerberg himself).
Lesson learned: Do not access sites via Facebook log-in.
The issue is that information collected by Facebook can be used for legitimate and illegitimate purposes. It is here where the responsibility before society of corporations such as Facebook lies: securing the legality and legitimacy of the collection, transformation, and use of the information. And here is where it failed.
Apart from collecting information and selling packages of information to advertisers who then use the platform for their propaganda, the platform is also used for disseminating other type of information among interested parties. That is what organizations did from Russia, mimicking other legitimate organizations from different countries, to seek to influence elections in the United States and European countries, disseminating favorable information regarding one campaign, frequently spreading falsehoods regarding other candidates. Facebook sold advertising space to whomever wanted to purchase it and that was seized to make a legal, and in agreement with platform policies, but illegitimate use of the platform. After the scandal, Facebook has placed controls to secure the legitimacy of advertisers, although it is very hard to control the legitimacy of content.
Is it possible to secure the legitimacy of content? Is that part of their responsibility? In his depositions before Congress, Zuckerberg said that Facebook from now on assumes responsibility for the content. This seems not feasible, unless it exercises such strict censorship that it ends up curtailing many freedoms and until now the desire for freedom has prevailed. Not every case of advertising and information are black and white, there is plenty of misleading advertising although it may not appear as such. And Facebook already exercises censorship, but for relatively simple things, for example, regarding naked-torso images (only for women) that by extension have taken the censorship to art pieces.
But if someone can distinguish between fake and true information is Facebook, by putting its advanced technology and the use of artificial intelligence to collect and process massive quantities of data. This would be assuming their responsibility before society.
With power come great responsibilities and this is what Facebook had not fully realized before, the great impact, the huge power they have to do good or evil. Influencing with the truth seems legitimate, but not with falsehoods. But, it is not easy to determine truth. Trying to influence is the business of advertising companies (how can we articulate the message in a way that we get the effect we want?), which is what has been occurring traditionally through mass media. And let us not deceive ourselves, misleading advertising is disseminated in the majority of mass media, even in magazines that promote responsibility, where articles are published praising the virtues of those companies that buy advertising spaces (irresponsibility). However, in the case of Facebook (and Google) data gathering is much more precise, focused, and massive. Facebook has much more responsibility. Can they handle it?
Will users react to this scandal? It is less likely because Facebook has already faced similar situations before, and each time something is unveiled, the number of users increase. At the end of 2007, it had 2, 2 billion (!!!) active users, how many will deregister? Certainly, some will worry about enhancing their privacy. But, it is most likely that we will be indifferent, ignorant, or lazy when faced with the irresponsibility of this corporation. We are addicts to the Facebook drug. We do not exercise our responsibility.
However, it is possible that this leads to regulating the activity of social media that for now operates with few restrictions in many countries, except those derived from privacy policies, something in which Europe has taken the lead with the privacy law that comes into force in May 2018. In his last hearing, Zuckerberg recognized before Congress that regulation of social media is unavoidable. This is part of the solution, providing there is a balance between protection, freedom of speech, and innovation.
Another part of the solution is that the social-media companies themselves manage, not only legally but also legitimate and ethically, the information they gather. Not easy when faced with the massive amounts of money involved.
Something good will come out of the scandal, even if share prices of some of these companies suffer.
Principal Associate, Cumpetere
Adjunct Professor, Stanford University
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