Facebook’s terrible, horrible year

The social media giant has been the subject of congressional hearings and numerous investigations for its casual sharing of user data. Now it needs to do the hard work to reshape itself as an ethical entity.

Charles Platiau/Reuters/File
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at a technology summit in Paris in May 2018.

More than a quarter of the 7.7 billion people on Earth, some 2 billion, are Facebook users.

Watching Facebook has become an incomplete but valuable proxy for understanding how the internet is reshaping human interactions, and especially how individual privacy has come under assault. 

This year the mega company has been the subject of government hearings in the United States and been scrutinized by Britain’s Parliament. Its chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, have been grilled by public officials. Facebook is being sued by the attorney general of the District of Columbia for allowing improper access to users’ data and hiding that fact. The Federal Trade Commission is looking at the way the company handles user data.

Facebook has also had to defend itself against charges that Russian agitators used the online platform to spread disinformation and fuel distrust and anger during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Facebook’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year is ending with a New York Times exposé this week in which the company was shown to have shared mountains of data on its users with other companies, including Microsoft, Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify, without these users’ consent or knowledge. 

For years, some Facebook users have shrugged their shoulders and said in effect, “I don’t care about privacy. I’ve got nothing to hide.” They click a button essentially giving Facebook a right to do what it will with their information. Many others have tried to follow sometimes complex instructions on how to make their accounts more private. One new revelation is that even these efforts may not be enough and that information has been shared anyway with a bevy of Facebook partners.

The solution for some users has been to walk away, to shut down their Facebook account. Even then it’s not clear how much of their personal information has already been shared beyond the company or where it may still be lodged.

Facebook’s phenomenal growth has also told a much more positive story: The site has become a powerful way to share what’s important to individuals, from family news and personal interests to political and social views, with others living anywhere in the world. It has helped entrepreneurs reach customers with innovative ideas. Since it’s free of charge, the only requirement for participation has been an internet connection: Facebook has empowered and given a voice to hitherto powerless and voiceless people. 

While those advantages remain, more and more downsides continue to be exposed. Roger McNamee, an early investor in the company, told the Times flatly, “No one should trust Facebook until they change their business model.”

Mr. Zuckerberg has said that fixing the company will be a hard task, the work of many years, and that the problem may never be fully solved.

Whatever steps Facebook takes should be based on treating users not just as sources of valuable data to be mined and shared, but as clients to whom it owes a solemn obligation. The company should not place its business interests above the well-being of its users. That includes the need to protect their privacy.

If Facebook can turn around its image and become known for its high ethical standards, it could not only set a needed example, but give itself a competitive advantage against rivals seen as less trustworthy. 

The hard work of remaking Facebook as a more ethical entity could be a win for both the company and its billions of users.

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