As surely as time passes or clouds float through the sky, Facebook is embroiled self-manufactured scandal. Less than a week after the social network disclosed a bug that made millions of user photos accessible to third-party developers, the New York Times published a bombshell report outlining more of the alarming ways Facebook abused trust to shovel user data to advertisers and corporate partners.
Bubbling up from the revelations that are so routine as to become boring is that increasingly unavoidable fact: Facebook isn’t for you. It’s not a vehicle for fostering human connection and building bridges of cross-cultural understanding, as its original mission statement declared. Facebook is a business, and one that is fueled by data, often provided unwittingly and on an industrial scale by users and even non-users who happen to be in its orbit.
The Times story, drawn from 60 interviews and internal company documents, illustrates how Facebook gave over presumably private data to corporate partners. Spotify and Netflix were able to see the contents of user’s private messages, while Bing was able to detect “the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent,” the report states. “Without consent” is a recurring theme for Facebook in a year marred by data breaches, political propaganda deployed by foreign trolls, and a public caught somewhere between helplessness and well-justified outrage.
If 2018 has revealed anything about the social network, it’s that people—the 2.2 billion-strong coalition of core users under Facebook’s thumb—matter more to Facebook as a resource than as customers. The customer, after all, is the advertisers, and the product is your data.
While executives have spoken highly of the virtues of privacy, especially in the wake of Cambridge Analytica and ensuing scrutiny from the Senate earlier this year, it’s clearer than ever that the foundation of Facebook’s actual business— the way that it exists and interacts with the world—is fundamentally opposed to the privacy it claims to value. It’s not just that Facebook does not value privacy, it cannot value privacy.
And Facebook has plenty to share, not only about your browsing habits, but probably your phone number and network of contacts, whether you’ve given that up willingly or not. It wants to use AI to identify families based on their photos, so it can then pepper them with ads. It’s an operation that’s seen rapid growth in the last four years, with its total global advertising revenue cresting upwards of $33 billion in 2018. All of this is made possible by an abdication of duty to privacy, enabled in large by an intentionally murky definition of what qualifies as user data.
Calls to #DeleteFacebook are understandable, and indicative of the growing distaste for the company and state of affairs, but deleting your account will do little to solve the sprawling issue. Remember, Facebook owns Instagram and Whatsapp, two heavy-hitters beloved by many and which form a trio that’s often essential to business in 21st century economy, for better or worse.
Seeing Facebook for what it is—ultimately incapable of restraining itself on matters of privacy and materially encouraged to do anything but—may not be the solution, but it is surely the first step.
Netflix has issued the following statement in response to this article:
“Over the years we have tried various ways to make Netflix more social. One example of this was a feature we launched in 2014 that enabled members to recommend TV shows and movies to their Facebook friends via Messenger or Netflix. It was never that popular so we shut the feature down in 2015. At no time did we access people’s private messages on Facebook or ask for the ability to do so.”