As the damning information about Facebook’s sloppy data protection practices and Cambridge Analytica’s role in using it during the 2016 presidential elections continues to accumulate, two very well-known people at the center of the scandal continue to remain silent: Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
It’s little wonder. Consider some of the events of the past 24 hours:
- Almost as soon as Facebook announced it would conduct an audit of Cambridge Analytica to determine if the firm did as it claimed and deleted the information on 50 million Facebook users who did not give them permission to access their content, British authorities stepped in and ordered the Silicon Valley behemoth to stand down, saying they would conduct the investigation themselves.
- Bloomberg reported Tuesday morning that the Federal Trade Commission was opening up an investigation into whether Facebook violated the terms of a 2011 consent decree that required the company to notify site users and offer them an out when their personal data is going to be used in a way that conflicts with their privacy settings.
- Another whistleblower, former Facebook platform operations manager Sandy Parakilas, claimed that he repeatedly warned Facebook senior executives that any number of firms were, like Cambridge Aanlytica, harvesting the data of millions of unsuspecting Facebook users. “They felt it was better not to know. I found that utterly shocking and horrifying,” he told the Guardian.
- In an interview with CNN, Cambridge Analytica co-founder turned whistleblower Christopher Wylie said he was “surprised” when the Trump campaign began using the phrase “draining the swamp,” because Cambridge Analytica tested it in 2014, giving more ammunition to the idea that people’s data was used in ways that would horrify them.
- On Monday night, the New York Times revealed that Alex Stamos, Facebook’s head of security, was making an exit later this year after making an unsuccessful push for the networking platform to be more publicly open about Russian involvement in the fake news crisis on the site. The paper reported executives resisted his entities, at least in part, because “the legal and policy teams have prioritized business imperatives” over informing the public of Facebook’s unwitting role in facilitating Russian interference in our election.
- In Great Britain, the head of a House of Commons investigation into the fake news crisis has officially requested Zuckerberg meet with his group. In his note to the head of Facebook, he accused the company of “misleading” the Committee. As for the European Parliament, they are also planning to conduct an investigation.
- In the United States, multiple politicians are calling for regulation of the technology platforms. While it seems likely nothing will move forward in the current GOP controlled Congress, things could change if Democrats make strong gains in the November elections.
Company insiders are beginning to take their complaints public. “It’s his company. People on the outside want to hear from him,” one nameless Facebook executive told CNN. “There is a sense that Mark doesn’t get his hands dirty until problems are way too far down the road.”
While it seems unlikely the unwholesome Facebook revelations will continue at this pace, it also seems unlikely this will go away anytime soon. As the details pile up about how the site allowed itself to be used during the 2016 election, the fury of both politicians and the public will likely grow. This will impact not just Facebook, but all the technology platforms. Ayelet Shaked, Israel’s Justice Minister, just announced the country was contemplating taking “legal action” against Twitter for allowing posters to incite terrorism.
For the past decade, social media and other giant technological platforms have prospered by offering us a deal: we could use their products for free (or minimal cost), and in return they would use our data as they see fit. It didn’t ring the alarm bells it should have, because all too many people — including our leading politicians — bought into the idea promulgated by Silicon Valley that the technological transformation on offer was a unique good. The people behind it were well-intentioned, so why question what they did, never mind regulate it?
That consensus is dissolving with each successive drip of information about Facebook. While ending the Wild West of no regulation that is the social media business in the United States currently certainly won’t serve the financial interests of the social media giants, and all those who use them to target their users, be they potential customers or would be voters, it’s the best thing that could happen to the rest of us, not to mention our politics.