by Ian R ThorpeThe strangest thing about the tidal wave of public revulsion about violations of privacy that have hit Facebook this week in the wake of revelations throughout this month of improper commercial exploitation of users data is the story of how an academic built an app to harvest the private data of people who took his 'personality test', and then sold his database to a public relations consultancty should have surprised nobody. I have been complaining in articles and blogs about abuses of privacy, not just by Facebook but a host of other tech firms for a decade.
It was, however, not Facebooks crashing share price, or the surge of people signing up to the “delete Facebook” campaign (itself quite possible a scam to capture users data), that came with it. Nor was it the five days that it took Mark Zuckerberg to personally respond to the crisis, strange as the chief executive’s silence seemed given his usual voluble style when talking about how Faceook makes our lives better.
No, what shuld have us all aking WTF is that the allegations levelled at the social networking giant express concerns at activities Facebook's business model is built on. There have been concerns about Facebook's privacy piracy had strayed from creepy to illegal as long ago as 2011 (when I wrote the linked article). In 2015 Facebook first faced accusations that it was failing to protect users’ data when newspaper reports emerged that a shadowy British data firm called Cambridge Analytica had harvested information from millions of profiles without their knowledge.
Back then the company, which uses not-particularly-clever caputre and analyse (C&A) techniques to build user profiles which facilitate targeted advertising or political campaigns, and which had been tasked with boosting Ted Cruz’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential campaign, was virtually unknown. The claims then were as serious as many of those made last week. But the story failed to reverberate around the world, nor did it cost the social network almost $60bn (£42bn).
The crucial difference is that while the facts have not changed, the world has. There are two important new factors. The first is that Cambridge Analytica struck up a relationship with Donald Trump's capaign team after he secured the Republican nomination. Trump's eventual victory in the 2016 presidential election has invited near-constant allegations of impropriety and vote rigging with the most serious allegations, of collusion with Russia, having been thoroughly discredited. There remain, however, a rump of Hillary Clinton supporters who simply cannot accept their candidate lost according to the rules as they applied in 2016.
It is these people who, having once idolised Mark Zuckerberg for his professed liberal principles (which it turns out are overridden by his lust for wealth and power, have now turned on moonface and his company, although in te whole scandal, neith Facebook not its clients has done anything that was not done in 2008 and 2012 by the Obama campaign and was hailed as genius by the same people who are calling it criminal because it helped Trump.
If any good is to come out of this latest Facebook scandal it will be that mho have been prepaany users wred to put large chunks of their life online and reveal in depth personal date to social media and other "free" online services will now be prompted to develop a much better understanding of technology they were prepared to trust simply because it was 'cool'. We must all be aware also of the economics involved in providing the 'free stuff' that is thrown at us on the web. It costs fortunes to run server farms and rent commuincations network capacity and that must all be paid for somehow, and to now that somehow has usually meant advertising. If the service is presented as free, then users are not the customers, users and the personal data reveal and the habits and choices shown as they browse or shop online become the products being sold (to marketing/advertising companies). These companies don't collect data about users and their interests for academic research purposes, they collect it so that they can sell it. It is OK to use such services as long as one remembers that the services are not free, your profile is being sold to people whose business is to serve targeted ads to the pages pulled up on your screen.
It is also sensible for users to consider in which countries their data is held and under what legal jurisdiction(s) it is held - it should be in the Ts and Cs, but let's be honest, most people (me included) don't read them.
The downfall of Facebook should also be a turning point for publishing. Social media networks should be treated as publishers, with some responsibility for what appears on their pages. This would help to rein in the Wild West elements and also divert revenue to the traditional publishers who are being slowly destroyed by new media, because even well established newspapers, magazines and broadcasters find it hard to sell subscriptions when their products are hidden among so much worthless drek. A free press is an essential part of democracy. Facebook, Google and the rest should be paying the publishers for the content they scrape from real content publishers.