Facebook is in the news again, which is sort of ironic considering the social media behemoth is also one of the primary sources of news for Americans — case of the tail wagging the dog perhaps? Nonetheless, court documents obtained by the Wall Street Journal, reveals that the world’s favorite time-waster considered the sale of user data as far back as several years ago and well before the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections. To make matter worse, court documents also revealed that Facebook employees internally discussed pushing advertisers to spend more in return for increased access to information — the classic version of “pay to play.” Yet at a congressional hearing in April, Facebook CEO and tech leader most likely to lead the robots in a rebellion Mark Zuckerberg said,
“I can’t be clearer on this topic: We don’t sell data.”
Whilst not strictly speaking false, the reality of what Facebook does with user data is far more nuanced. For starters, what is defined as “user data,” is far from a foregone conclusion. You and I may suppose that user data is personal — but what if it’s packaged and anonymized? Does the re-purposing, re-packaging and sale of such user data somehow less reprehensible? What if your Facebook user data was amalgamated with other similar user data based on demographics such as race, or socio-economic background? Would you somehow feel less violated that that aspect of your user data was gleaned off and sold to the highest bidder?
To be certain, the day Facebook moved from a Harvard dorm room to a for-profit venture capital-backed Goliath was the day that all bets as to its altruistic goal of “connecting the world,” went out the window. Whether or not Facebook’s lofty ambition to improve the world by creating greater connections was marketing spiel or a genuine motivation will never be truly known. But honestly, what were we expecting? Those thousand-dollar Herman Miller chairs aren’t going to be paying for themselves. Nor is the massive Facebook campus or the pricey acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram. Venture capitalists are not funding ideologies, they’re taking a punt on out-sized paydays and returns. And that means that eventually, every startup which may have started off on ideological lines must inevitably start examining bottom lines. In this respect, Facebook’s profit hunting is neither unique in the tech industry, nor is it likely to be the last tech company to consider selling user data.
Even though Facebook ultimately decided against selling user data, that they would have even considered doing so is a frightening prospect. But who really owns the data that we put on Facebook anyway? Think about that for a moment. Because even though we may instinctively feel that the content which we put onto Facebook belongs to us, the reality is slightly more nuanced. There is a price for access to the ease, connectivity and convenience of Facebook. Depending on the nature of the content we upload to Facebook and the privacy permissions we set for our posts (most users neglect to examine the default settings — your data is a lot more public than you imagine), user data could either belong to the you, Facebook or a combination of both (wherein Facebook will require your express consent to provide your data to a third party).
Given the reams of legalese that govern the Facebook user agreement (which nobody reads), don’t be surprised when your user data belongs to Facebook to do what it will. Even if Facebook doesn’t sell your user data piecemeal, that’s not to say that third party applications such as Cambridge Analytica couldn’t exploit that data for targeted political ads and misinformation campaigns. And even without selling your user data to other parties, Facebook can still exploit your user data to serve up targeted ads to you from its advertisers, including ads which are so apt for your situation that it’s downright creepy.
But who’s to blame?
The question is not so straightforward to answer. When it comes to drug addiction, who’s to blame? The junkie or the dealer? Facebook peddles a highly addictive product. Every “like” every “share” every response we receive on the platform bombards our dopamine receptors the same way that crack cocaine does and just like on the streets, the first hit’s always free. But unlike on the street, Facebook keeps providing us with these dopamine hits in the palm of our hands 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and 365 days a year. Imagine a dopamine high in your pocket that you can access anytime of day or night. So to keep getting to those highs, we share more, we post more, we get into arguments on Facebook with people we hardly see in real life. We envy our acquaintances who seem to have the perfect “Facebook lives.” All this while, the dopamine receptors in our brains are being bombarded that we no longer have any control over our social media addiction. And all the while, Facebook prints money faster than the Federal Reserve during a bailout of Wall Street off of our user data. And with the costs of non-participation so high, we just get sucked into the social media vortex and lose self-control not just of our user data, but ultimately ourselves as well.
Is there a better way?
There are alternatives. But whether or not they’re better than Facebook remains to be seen. One ideal suggested by the blockchain and cryptocurrency community is for the ownership of user data to be returned to users themselves who then have the ability to dictate how that user data is exploited. A user’s need for privacy varies greatly. Some argue that users who are willing to make their data available to advertisers or in the contribution to data models or statistical analysis should be recompensed for their candor.
By creating a decentralized user data profile, with a public key (which is the public facing user data profile) and a private key, which restricts the volume and nature of user data made available to other users or corporations plus an incentive scheme to incentivize users to part with their user data, an ecosystem to decentralize and democratize the management and use of user data could be created. One example that already exists on the blockchain is Steemit — a blogging and social networking site that rewards publishers, curators and content creators with its own cryptocurrency Steem. Users can “upvote” posts and comments, just like on sites like Reddit and the authors who get upvoted receive monetary rewards from Steem as well as dollar-pegged tokens called Steem Dollars. Steemit is thought to have over a million users currently, but more importantly is the number of active users on the platform, a number which varies greatly depending on circumstances. And while this is a far cry from Facebook’s user numbers and evidence that Steemit’s growth may be slowing down — it’s certainly a start.
In a recent New York Times piece, Dr. Matthew Liao opined on whether or not users have a moral duty to leave Facebook. And while Dr. Liao ultimately concluded that Facebook had yet to cross the threshold for boycott, its constant missteps with regards to our user data, potential role in serving as a platform for misinformation campaigns as well as its possibly pivotal function in swaying the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections should no doubt provide some cause for users to question our loyalty to the platform. Similar to Amazon, Facebook leverages on the inherent laziness of users — the costs of leaving the network far outweigh the costs to our privacy and therefore despite the repeated assaults on the integrity of user data, Facebook has thus far emerged relatively unscathed. But already, user engagement is slowing. Whether it’s social media fatigue or the rise of other social media properties such as Instagram (which is also owned by Facebook), its perpetual dominance is not a given.
Which brings me back to the argument for a decentralized alternative to Facebook. The human need to connect, our inherently voyeuristic tendencies and our inbuilt social nature means that social media platforms, for better or worse will always remain a part of the human fabric. As an invention, social media has liberated countries, connected families, championed worthy causes and taken down brutal dictatorships. But it has also been responsible for propagating hate speech, undermining democracy, inciting violence, oppressing minorities and propagating misinformation. Given its potential for both tremendous good and evil, we would be remiss in our duty to argue that the social media experiment is over — social media can and will continue to evolve, as it should. But one thing is certain, the centralization of so much power in a tool that is so powerful with its destructive potential needs to be questioned. Decentralized social media platforms such as Steemit are just the start of that conversation. But we need to go further. Just as the Founding Fathers saw the danger of centralizing power and created the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary to provide sufficient checks and balances, so too should the decentralization of power when it comes to social media be considered. Because until we start to question the status quo, we can and should expect that platforms such as Facebook will continue to exploit user data for commercial profit.