Once he decided to talk, Mark Zuckerberg talked a good game. He finally addressed the growing uproar that data of about 50 million users of Facebook, which he founded as a college student, was mined and that users were targeted for specific political propaganda.
“We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t, then we don’t deserve to serve you, Zuckerberg said in a statement Wednesday that he posted on Facebook.
Talk about stating the obvious.
These were his first public comments after staying hunkered down and out of sight since the New York Times and the London Observer released a report that the firm Cambridge Analytica, hired by the Trump campaign to target voters online, used the data of tens of millions of people obtained from Facebook without proper disclosure or permission.
Of course, this is not the first time that Facebook has had to confront how the platform was exploited for political purposes. Already it has had to defend itself for the role it played in Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 presidential election, through the rampant use of misinformation and, yes, fake news, that true believers took as gospel.
However, Cambridge Analytica’s misbehavior wasn’t another stealthy move that caught Facebook off guard; it was the unfortunately logical result of Facebook pretty much giving away users’ data over the years with few questions asked. It’s the foundation of its business model, of its ability to secure advertising that micro-targets users.
Zuckerberg knew the deal. But didn’t tell us.
In 2014 Cambridge Analytica got $15 million from Robert Mercer, a conservative donor, to target voters. A British professor culled data from Facebook after getting the OK from almost 300,000 users to take part in what he claimed was a personality study. But he did not get permission from the users’ friends, whose data also fell into his lap. The number of people affected ballooned to about 50 million people.
The ethics and privacy violations aside, this could also be a violation of Facebook’s 2011 agreement with the U.S. government to contact users when their personal information was used in a way that did not comport with their privacy settings.
In 2015, when Facebook learned of this misuse through a report in the Guardian, the social network demanded that Cambridge Analytica destroy the personal data. Didn’t happen.
We support some federal lawmakers’ calls that Zuckerberg testify, under oath, before Congress. The Facebook founder said that it is something he is willing to do “if it’s the right thing.”
Yes, it’s the right thing. Facebook users are worried, angry and threatening to leave the social network. In all likelihood, the lure of connecting to friends, relatives and colleagues, the ego boost of “likes” for new jobs, 25th wedding anniversaries and photos of a well-executed and homemade boeuf bourguignon likely are too powerful for a mass exodus.
But rather than hoping the unpleasantness all blows over, it’s past time for Zuckerberg to come clean in front of Congress and the rest of us.