Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance before a joint session of the US Senate’s Commerce and Judiciary committees, as well as his appearance before the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, shined a light on the dark side of social media. Although Zuckerberg’s testimony was a result of the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, which involved the for-profit misuse of data from nearly 100 million Facebook users, the occasion was an opportunity for political leaders to directly and publicly interact with an internet leader. It was also a rare occasion for a leader of a largely unregulated industry to meet with policymakers seeking solutions to emerging social issues created by information technology. It is an interaction that should happen on a regular basis in order to foster a meaningful discussion between technologists, social scientists, policymakers, legal experts, and all those who have insights to offer.
On the one hand, Senators and Congressmen were forced to discuss the social issues created by the mass sharing of personal data and information technology, which they did not seem to fully grasp. On the other hand, Zuckerberg, whose responses to the Congressional probe resembled those of a nervous, wanna-be-intellectual, computer science student defending his half-baked social views before a board of ethics professors, was forced to address the legal, social, and economic questions he has chosen to largely avoid for years. With two billion users worldwide, Facebook is the “top dog” when it comes to social media platforms; therefore, the privacy policies and practices of Facebook matter greatly. Although Facebook is a transinternational corporation with users hailing from all over the world, the US is the world’s most powerful, so the Congressional probe of Facebook has a very real value to people all over the world.
Zuckerberg and the members of Congress participating in the exchange, however, failed to recognize the driving force behind most of the issues created by the business models of Facebook and other internet giants. It is not the job of Facebook to suppress socially harmful behavior and speech. It is a responsibility of government to police harmful behavior, which can mean it is the responsibility of government to require Facebook to ban the promotion or solicitation of illicit behavior. It is not the job of Facebook to deny Russian trolls a voice, whether they are stationed outside of the US or operating within US borders. It is responsibility of government to protect the election system from undue influence, whether it is domestic or foreign influence. Neither Facebook, as a platform dedicated to the free exchange of ideas, nor the US government, which is prohibited from suppressing free expression, have a mandate to suppress the expression of individuals, because what they say or show is considered socially harmful. These issues must be addressed through transparency and a reasonable right to privacy.
With that in mind, the amount of information Facebook knows about individuals and how that information can be used to influence them is troubling, but Facebook’s reach is limited to what its users post. Choosing not to participate on the Facebook platform is an option that can allow users to both punish and limit the impact of Facebook. Other technology companies, however, have a far broader reach and far more integral role in the cyberspace experience. Most notable is Google. Google not only determines what sources of information are most likely to reach internet users via its search engine results, its use of promoted search results, featured snippets, answers with hidden search results, and other practices that reinforce poor research habits in the name of user preferences and improved user experience feed people the answers Google favors. The influence of Google is so pervasive on the internet that those who chose not to use Google are still influenced by Google while those who do have the meta-data of all their decisions indexed and analyzed.
What Facebook and Google have in common, like a great number of internet and social media giants, is a business model that exploits user data to derive profit. Facebook, Google Plus, nor any other social media platform is just a platform for the exchange of ideas that happens to use advertisements as a revenue source. They are not interactive newspapers or online forums. Social media platforms are data gathering platforms that project a casual atmosphere in order to lure users into a false sense of security and record exploitable details about their lives. Traditional media sources, for example, have always relied on demographic data to sell ad space and derive ad revenue while traditional data gathering firms have also relied on surveys, which require explicit consent, to derive profits. What the likes of Facebook and Google do is abuse their access to massive amounts of personal data to give their products a competitive edge. They do not sell ads; they sell targeted ads. They violate the privacy of their users to drive sales of their specialized products above those of their competitors.
If Facebook wanted to simply be a social media platform, it could easily do that by setting limits on how targeted its ads can be. Google can do the same. Facebook, Google, and every other internet giant that exploits the private data of users to target the services of their clients can secure a reasonable right to privacy for all internet users by embracing a more traditional and more responsible view on ad sales. Advertisers like to know their ad dollars are translating into sales, but that is a modern sales tactic invented by companies like Facebook and Google to eke out a competitive edge. Sponsorship of more traditional media has never guaranteed sales. In many ways, the inability of advertisers to target consumers forced advisers platforms, such as newspaper and television stations, to protect the privacy of viewers. It also helped subsidize the components of traditional media news sources that were less popular and/or more expensive, i.e. expertise, investigative reporting, and vetting. It also helped secure unpopular views and prevent most of the other social issues unique to information technology.
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