Facebook is clearly unwilling to take action themselves, so it’s time we step in.
This weekend’s New York Times exclusive report on Cambridge Analytica’s access to and use of Facebook user data in the 2016 election has brought light to the amount of data Facebook and other platforms capture about their users. Although Cambridge Analytica likely broke Facebook Terms of Service, the process they took to access user information and use it for nefarious purposes would not be impossible for many other bad actors.
How We Got Here
Since Facebook’s founding in 2004, Mark Zuckerberg has always promoted Facebook as a source of good in the world — that the platform would bring people closer together and connect the globe.
In order to bring that idea to reality, Zuckerberg has leaned on three core principles:
- Scale Is Vital: Facebook cannot connect the world unless the entire world has access. This is one of the reasons he’s focused on bringing Internet to otherwise remote and unconnected areas of the world.
- Sharing Is Expected: How do you bring people closer together in an otherwise abstract digital world? Encourage them to share every minute detail of their lives. Photos of their kids. Places they went on vacation. What year they were married. Everything is fair game.
- Extensions Build the Ecosystem: From the start of the Open Graph, Facebook has encouraged developers to extend the Facebook ecosystem into every corner of people’s digital existence. Like to listen to music? Why not login to Spotify using Facebook and see what your friends are listening to? Reading The New York Times? Connect with Facebook and get recommendations for more meaningful content. Marketers want to better measure results of their advertising? Oh, just drop the Universal Pixel on your site and track view-through conversions.
Unfortunately, some aspects of these principles inherently undermine Zuckerberg’s fundamental belief that Facebook is a source of good. They make the platform a siren song for dubious players to jump in. Scale? That’s what let Cambridge Analytica build models from 50 million people. Sharing? Suddenly Cambridge Analytica knows every detail of your life—from what your political leanings are to your mother’s maiden name. Extensions? Yep, now Cambridge Analytica has data that includes actions taken across most of the web (including off Facebook browsing activity).
Former Facebook platform managers have said Facebook’s policies have always been lacking, with very little oversight or interest in pursuing how developers use this data.
While Mark Zuckerberg finally acknowledged some of their role in allowing Cambridge Analytica to access and misuse so much information, he avoided accepting responsibility for their lack of oversight into CA’s activity and has yet to commit to any real change in how Facebook identifies opportunities for more bad actors to exploit the platform. Why? He has a financial disincentive to fix the problem. He needs the scale, data and ecosystem to further build the Facebook empire and sell his real product (user data) to marketers like us.
Saving Facebook From Itself
If Facebook is unwilling to do something, the government is likely to step in quickly. Monday evening, Britain’s Information Officer announced she’s seeking a warrant to raid Cambridge Analytica and seize their servers. The FTC just announced they’ll be looking into how Facebook handles user data. Lawmakers and regulators are eager to point fingers and show some quick action in this area. If previous actions are any indication, we can likely expect one of two outcomes:
It’s possible regulators will take a quick “shut it down” approach to regulating consumer protection online. Unfortunately, this would mean digital marketers will lose access to data that makes the platform so powerful. We’ve already lost access to Facebook Topic Data (anonymized social listening data from private Facebook profiles) and there’s a current hold on targeting by employer, field of study, university, etc. Losing this data makes it harder for us to identify meaningful audiences and target our advertising.
If we follow the Net Neutrality example, we see that our current administration and its regulators are eager to have an open market. Current legislation being debated and encouraged by Zuckerberg would reveal only how we disclose who’s paying for advertising. It does not protect user data. No action at all could quickly lead to users reducing how much data they’re willing to share, a rise in new social networks that limit advertiser involvement and data access, or users abandoning these platforms completely. This, of course, would be just as detrimental to the success of digital marketing in the future.
The Need for Independent Review
Where does that leave us? A third option is industry regulation. We, as marketers, must create an independent review board that would work alongside Facebook’s data privacy and engineering teams to identify opportunities for bad actors to misuse personal data.
“There have to be 1,000 other Cambridge Analytica-type outfits out there that have obtained data from Facebook apps semi-dubiously,” says Beth Carpenter, CEO of Violet Hour Social Marketing. She sees the need for more oversight of how developers and marketers are accessing and using data and believes we may need to go even further than an IRB.
“Ideally, a HIPPA equivalent would protect user data.”
If we go the IRB route, the 4As or another industry organization could lead the effort, which must include data engineers, advertisers and other marketers who understand how to access and manipulate this data. Financial incentives could drive hackathons focused on identifying new entry points that bad players could use.
Instead of waiting for the government to lock down these platforms or consumers to flee in droves because of privacy concerns, our industry must protect itself and the data we need to be successful before it’s too late.