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The public admission of wrongdoing by the Facebook CEO and his pledge to improve are welcome, but not sufficient. It's time to recognize that Facebook, Google and others are modern utilities — and treat them accordingly.
Ahead of the Congressional testimony from its top executive about its worst scandal yet, Facebook has been very busy. Last week the company said it supported a bipartisan bill, the so-called Honest Ads Act, which would require political advertising on the internet to publish the same disclosures that are required for radio and television ads.
Facebook also announced that independently of the bill, which has until now been stalled in Congress, it would require buyers of both election-related and political issue ads to disclose their identity and location as well as who paid for them. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also vowed that the company would make the consent requirements and privacy protections of the EU's upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the most far reaching internet governance measures yet, available to users outside of Europe.
On Monday, when Zuckerberg was already in Washington meeting with lawmakers ahead of his testimony, Facebook announced that it would provide a group of outside "international" scholars that represent "different political outlooks" access to company data with the goal of independently researching Facebook's role in upcoming elections in different countries. Bookending the company's public affairs push were repeated public admissions of guilt by Zuckerberg himself. And on Tuesday, the second day of his three-day apology tour that took him to the US capital, he reiterated to lawmakers that he was really sorry for Facebook's misconduct and promised to do better in the future.
All of it was long overdue and warranted — Zuckerberg's mea culpa was due because he is not only Facebook's founder, chief executive and chairman, but he also controls nearly 60 percent of its voting stock. This makes him the company's unassailable leader, and ultimately responsible for its conduct. The company's sudden support for the Honest Ads Act, its newly found willingness to tighten ad rules and its sudden vow to extend the protections of Europe's GDPR globally were similarly overdue and warranted.
But make no mistake: The only reason why Facebook has reacted is because it was forced to do so. The steady drip of revelations concerning the platform's nefarious role in the Russia-orchestrated disinformation campaign during the 2016 US presidential election, and its apparently massive privacy breach involving British data firm Cambridge Analytica were simply too egregious to be casually overlooked by the public and lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
But letting Facebook off the hook after its CEO's public admission of guilt and vague vows to do better by checking all of its apps and clamping down on politically themed ads is not good enough.
Harvesting and selling personal data
First, because this is not the first time that Facebook has faced a public firestorm for user privacy issues. In fact, as detailed by the watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation eight years ago, Facebook soon after its inception shifted away from privacy towards "a platform where you have no choice, but to make certain information public."
And second, because the Facebook scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. Other major internet players such as Google and Twitter have also been implicated in the spread of disinformation during the presidential election and have repeatedly shown that protecting users' privacy is no priority for them. To wit, on Monday, 20 consumer groups filed a claim with the US Federal Trade Commission alleging that Google's video platform violated US child protection laws by collecting personal data on users under 13 years of age.
That Facebook and Google are so eagerly harvesting and selling our personal data should not come as a surprise. While Zuckerberg touted again in the Senate hearing that Facebook is an "idealistic" company whose mission is simply connecting people and Google claims its mission is to provide information, the fact is that the core business of both companies is data mining and advertising on an unprecedented global scale. Both firms make the lion's share of their profits not by providing information or by connecting people, but by selling global bidders advertising that is as targeted to a person's personal profile as possible. If you doubt that Facebook and Google's core business is data aggregation, download your personal history — but set aside some time. It could take a while if you are an average user of both services.
The argument made by some in defense of these companies that no one is forced to use them is disingenuous and unrealistic. In today's digital-based economy it is simply not a feasible alternative for most people to opt out of using the services of internet and social media giants Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple. These firms, for better or worse, have become de-facto utilities that are simply too large and important to do without.
Regulation, instead of promise to self-regulate
This assessment is not new, nor are possible suggestions on how to deal with the consequences of the importance of these companies to today's societies and economies. These include using anti-trust laws to rein in what many consider to be the quasi-monopolistic tendencies of these firms. There have also been calls to break them up or to force ad-driven companies like Facebook to provide users with the option of paying for the service in return for not having their personal information harvested and sold to advertisers.
Not surprisingly, Facebook's Zuckerberg rejected a paid and ad-free Facebook option in his testimony today. He also waffled and gave misleading answers on many other issues such as what Facebook does with all the personal data it gleans from users, and when he said that Facebook does not allow fake accounts. While that is technically true, it is evident that this was and is not true. On the same day that Zuckerberg gave his testimony, Facebook announced that it had removed a fake Black Lives Matter page.
All of this shows that Zuckerberg's testimony and the company's actions are primarily geared toward preserving their business model and keeping it as unrestrained as possible. By saying sorry and promising to really do better this time, Facebook and the other internet giants want to stave off being regulated by federal authorities. Congress and the EU should not take the bait. Facebook and the other internet giants need to be regulated. They are simply too important for the future of democracy worldwide not to be.