There’s an age-old saying that goes; if the product is free, then you are the product. With a never-ending list of free products and applications that regularly rule our lives, from games to social media applications, these apps may not bring a loss to your wallet but they will certainly cost you nonetheless. The only charge associated with it: Your privacy.
In March of 2019, co-founder and CEO of Facebook Inc., Mark Zuckerberg, published a three thousand word essay outlining Facebook’s new plan to prioritize user data and improve the safety of this data in the future. Zuckerberg’s post is likely an attempt at damage control following several scandals of data breaching and instances of data misuse. As a result, Facebook has been at the forefront of controversy for many months but even while Facebook’s stock may have dropped, which also includes the Facebook-owned applications Instagram and WhatsApp, the company remains popular. However, what happens when a major company like this, one that owns more than half the market share of social media and digital communication, violates basic privacy ethics? And, how do we hold them accountable?
These issues may not even come as a surprise to frequent social media users, because the use of our private data is part of what shapes our personal social experiences on these platforms. Social media platforms gather your data to understand your unique consumer behavior, in order to create effective targeted advertising. With this data, social media companies can properly provide advertisers with quantifiable data about consumers for businesses to capitalize upon. Therefore, each and every advertisement that appears in your social media feeds are out there using the very data that you gave over to the company. Factors like this include, your geographical location, your education history, occupation, your likes, beliefs, and even your face.
Picture this scenario: You just finished uploading photos from your recent exciting holiday party and immediately upon uploading these photos of you and your friends, Facebook has already identified the faces in the photos and asks if you’d like to tag your friends in those photos. Meaning that Facebook’s facial recognition adds to the fact that the company knows everything about you, from your worst time-wasting habits to your own unique face (which gets more disconcerting when you consider that there’s a large database that stores and recognizes your face and can identify it as such whenever it appears in a photo or video.) Perhaps you become concerned by a major conglomerate’s ability to recognize you and quickly rush to Facebook to delete all the photos and videos of yourself from the platform. That may seem effective at first, until you consider the March 2018 report by New York Magazine, which claimed that the company hadn’t deleted any of the videos after users tried to delete old videos and other content that was still living on the company’s servers. This led to the company apologizing for this practice and promised to truly delete them upon user request. Despite everything, by using Facebook’s platform and agreeing to its Terms of Service, you provide the company with the license to use any pictures and videos that you publish to the platform for their own purposes. In other words, while the copyright to the photo may be your own intellectual property, Facebook reserves the right to re-publish your picture on one of their pages or use your likeness in a television commercial without paying you a dime.
Taking this all into account makes recent scandals surrounding the company even more troublesome, including last years infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting firm that leveraged data mining and data analysis to create communication strategies for political campaigns. During the 2016 election cycle, eighty seven million users had their personal data breached by the consulting firm through the two hundred seven thousand users who provided data for an app called “This is Your Digital Life”. Facebook gave permission to this third-party app to collect data of users who consented to answer surveys about their digital usage habits for monetary compensation. Violating their agreement with Facebook’s terms of service, the Cambridge Analytica application instead also gathered the information of the “friend network” of each user, which breached not only the users themselves but the entirety of each of their friends on the platform and beyond. With this data, the firm set about creating strategies to help boost its political client during that election cycle, the now-president Donald J. Trump, which led to Russian interference in the U.S. election using Facebook as a primary tool to spread false information through targeted advertising.
Aside from Facebook’s very disconcerting issues surrounding their ability to combat false information (all the while profiting the very same advertising), a far more personal question that we ought to ask ourselves is: How do we want these conglomerates to handle our private data and information? Ultimately, it comes down to how we legally view the service and the company as a whole. When testifying before the United States Supreme Court last year, Zuckerberg stated that he views Facebook Inc. as a “technology company” rather than a media company. The issue that lies here is that we don’t yet have guidelines to how we hold social platforms accountable with the law. Should Facebook be deemed a media or publishing company, it would be held accountable to laws and restrictions set in place for several decades, enforcing transparency from the electoral candidates themselves. In the meantime, United States lawmakers have scrambled to decide just how to regulate Facebook, and just what that regulation might even be.
Despite Facebook’s somewhat unethical practices, it’s certain that even with user dissatisfaction, its practices aren’t going to change anytime soon. This is because Facebook isn’t as interested in creating a positive user experience than it is interested in mining your data to sell to other corporate advertisers. Perhaps the biggest selling point of Facebook’s multiple major brands is that all of your co-workers, friends, and family members are omnisciently present on the platform, which makes it an integral part of how we communicate. In fact, it would be even more of an inconvenience to quit the platform entirely seeing as how our lives have become so integrated with it. It’s important that we remain careful about how much of our data we choose to share with these companies. The more that we surrender our privacy to the product, the more that we ourselves become the product worth re-selling.