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Over the course of the past 18 months, it has become increasingly clear that user privacy is an afterthought at Facebook. What matters first and foremost to CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his executive team is the ability to make money by selling access to user data. The more data you provide Facebook, the easier it is for the Silicon Valley giant to find a willing buyer for it. That seems to be the biggest takeaway from a massive trove of documents recently leaked to the media.
Data = Leverage
The nearly 4,000 pages of documents include inter-office memos, emails, webchats, meeting summaries and spreadsheets – and they are extremely unflattering, to say the least. Within the halls of Facebook, one big overarching theme appears to be that data is a bargaining chip and a form of leverage. In business negotiations, Facebook would routinely use access to Facebook data as a way to reward partners and punish rivals. Favorite developers, for example, would get access to as much data as possible. On the other hand, potential rivals would be denied user access.
In fact, some of the discussions between Facebook executives almost seemed Machiavellian. In one email exchange, a top Facebook executive was criticized for not exerting the maximum possible leverage in a business negotiation. In another, a Facebook executive was asked why he just gave data away to a partner without getting something back in return.
And these were not isolated incidents, either. Both CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg – the two most highly visible Facebook executives doing all the Facebook “apology tours” – fully supported the idea of selling access to user data. After all, how else was Facebook going to make money? If Facebook doesn’t charge a fee to sign up or use its services, then it needs to make money by some other means, and that usually means some form of targeted advertising or data-sharing arrangement.
The fake story about protecting user privacy
Another disturbing takeaway from those 4,000 pages of documents is the fact that Facebook’s public-facing persona was often a sham, used to cover up the fact that regulators and politicians were exerting pressure on them to clean up their act. When Facebook changes its terms of service, or when it changes some of the default privacy settings, it naturally tries to make those changes look like it is self-regulating itself because, like, it really cares about our privacy.
But in actuality, Facebook would then go right back to its developers and partners and exert even more leverage on them, basically telling them that access to user data was worthy of an even higher premium price.
So do we quit Facebook forever, or what?
By now, most people have contemplated quitting Facebook – or have known someone who has. But, for most of us, it’s now almost unthinkable to give up social media. Even if you move to another social media platform, it’s likely that they’re doing the same thing as Facebook, just not as blatantly.
In many ways, it’s a lot like filling up your car with gas each week. Sure, you might think big oil & gas companies are loathsome and might be of the opinion that they are destroying the environment and contributing to global warming. But you still fill up your car with gas each week, don’t you? Sure, you might know someone who’s gone electric, but it’s tough to give up your SUV, isn’t it? Now apply that same logic to Facebook. Facebook might be the ultimate “data for dollars” company, but the switching costs for many of us are just too great.