Mark Zuckerberg’s latest announcement gives me Don Corleone vibes.
They see your vulnerability as a business opportunity.
Zuckerberg isn’t alone in putting your security up for sale. In an even-more-egregious money grab, Elon Musk’s Twitter recently said it will start charging for a basic security feature that used to be free. Going forward, Twitter says that two-factor text-message authentication will only be available to people who subscribe to its $8 Blue service. (Everyone who doesn’t pay either gets less security or needs to change their settings ASAP — read here for instructions.)
While the details are different, both companies’ moves remind me of the protection rackets run by mobsters: force people to make regular payments in exchange for “security.” We need to draw a line in the sand. Security, privacy and basic account service should be included for everyone, not just those who pay more.
“Do not make the internet a less secure place for everyone just to make extra dollars,” said Rachel Tobac, the CEO of SocialProof Security, which helps companies deal with the human element of security. Twitter’s shift, she said, is the equivalent of secretly undoing someone’s seat belt while they’re driving; Facebook’s money grab is like charging them extra to send help when they get in a crash. (A crash, I might add, that’s partly Facebook’s fault.)
Why is this happening? Social media used to be free. That’s starting to change, in part, because the profits are no longer piling up quite as high in Silicon Valley for companies that built businesses on targeting us with ads. So they’re looking for new sources of growth that are actually worth paying for. As I’ve written, Twitter’s Blue service sells a verification badge that is largely pointless. (What would I pay for? How about a version of Facebook that completely respects my privacy.)
Big Tech has been creeping into upcharging for basic functions for a while. Google makes additional tech support part of its One subscription, whose main selling point is cloud storage. Apple, too, has turned privacy and security into luxury products. For example, it only encrypts the text messages you send to other people also using (expensive) Apple products.
This is bad because security and account service are not niche issues for Big Tech products. Frustration about regaining access to hacked Facebook and Instagram accounts is the No. 1 tech problem we hear about from readers at The Washington Post’s Help Desk. (We made this guide with 6 tips on things you can do to avoid getting hacked on Facebook.)
Meta’s notoriously bad account-recovery systems hurt people such as Jonathan Williams, 58, of Cocoa Beach, Fla., who reached out to Help Desk. A hacker recently took over his Facebook and Instagram accounts, linking them to a different email and putting a selfie of somebody else on top of his vacation photos. He told me he spent over 30 hours clicking through Facebook support pages and YouTube tutorials to regain access — all to no avail.
“It was like the perpetual motion machine of not being able to get anywhere. You cannot get a hold of a human,” he told me. “I have never had such a feeling of utter hopelessness in my life.”
So what does Williams think about paying Facebook $12 per month to get a human? “I think that royally sucks,” he said. “They make ungodly amounts of money.” (To be clear, the new subscription couldn’t even help Williams because you have to be able to access your account to sign up for it.)
A Meta spokeswoman told me that I’m inaccurately characterizing the company’s subscription offering, called Meta Verified. It says the target audience for the service, coming to the United States in the coming months, is the creator or influencer community. Those people, it says, try to grow a large following and are at increased risk for impersonation attempts. The subscription includes other features that might be of more interest to that audience, and Facebook says it wouldn’t encourage people to subscribe for the customer support alone.
But famous people are not the only Facebook users who need real support. As my colleague Tatum Hunter has written about in painful detail, Facebook’s current support limitations are costing people time, money and relationships. It’s true that, unlike Twitter, Facebook is not removing any existing security features from everyone else to begin charging for them. But don’t even think about offering premium customer service until you’re able to keep a product or service functional at a basic level for everyone.
“I would take this out of the ‘customer service’ silo, because this is about security. It’s leading people to being victimized and causing a lot of harm,” said Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. It’s not the same thing, she said, as paying extra for an upgraded seat or 24/7 concierge service.
Facebook says it is working on improving support for everyone, including starting a small test initiative to offer one-to-one chat support for users even who don’t pay any fee. When I asked what percentage of users had access to that, the company wouldn’t say.
When Zuckerberg announced the subscription on his Facebook account, a user challenged him in the comments, saying it “really should just be part of the core product, the user should not have to pay for this.”
Zuckerberg’s response was, essentially, that supporting everyone would cost too much. “Verifying government IDs and providing direct access to customer support for millions or billions of people costs a significant amount of money. Subscription fees will cover this and will also pace how many people sign up so we’ll be able to ensure quality as we scale,” he wrote.
I don’t doubt that providing service at such a wide scale is a challenge, perhaps one no one has figured out before. But Facebook could be lessening the scale of its burden if it changed the design of its products to make them harder to hack, said Tobac, the security expert. “One of the reasons Facebook accounts are taken over so frequently is because so few users have the second step when they log in. They are easily phished or tricked,” she said. (You can, and should turn this on now here.)
Often, Facebook and Instagram users also have account problems because they run afoul of the company’s vague content-moderation standards. In one infamous example, Facebook for years cut off the accounts of drag performers just because the performance names listed on their pages didn’t match their real names. In another, Facebook shut down a gardening group for overuse of the word “hoe.”
“This seems to be monetization of their failure to enact meaningful and responsive content moderation,” said William Budington, a senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
These are Zuckerberg’s and Musk’s problems to solve, not ours. Meta’s net income last year was $23 billion, mostly made off our personal data. Protecting us is a cost of doing business.
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