Y’know, way back in the mid-2000s when all this social media crap first got off the ground, the suggestion that something like facebook could ever have some sort of significant impact on the world would have seemed insane. I mean it’s facebook – a platform for keeping track of people you met that one time and never talk to, half-arsed socialising, and the sort of ceaseless, unfiltered boasting that would get eyes rolled at you if you tried it in person. How the hell could this Myspace 2.0 ever have any significant influence on something as serious as politics?
And yet here we are, in 2018 with a meme of a US president who quite possibly got the job thanks to a social media outlet, where a 33 year old tech nerd just got hauled before the US Senate to account for his role in a colossal privacy invasion, and where the company he runs just happened to have donated to 9 of the 11 Senators who interviewed him. This is a story worth of old-world oil tycoons, not a service which the vast majority of its users would largely describe with ‘meh’.
Bizarre as the whole situation has become, between the combined insanity of the Cambridge Analytica privacy leaks and its use by foreign agents to influence a US presidential election, the public is starting to realise that the stupid website where they go to post pictures of their dinner and see how second-cousin Carrol is doing these days, is actually up to some shady, and somewhat serious shenanigans.
Of course this is hardly news to anyone who’s been following the company for a while – Zuckerberg has been apologising for privacy breaches his company has caused quite literally since before it was called Facebook, and yet it somehow continues to happen. The company is well-known for their labyrinthine and constantly changing privacy controls, the near impossibility of quitting the site, their creepy as hell facial recognition ‘tagging’ system, unbelievably intrusive game notifications and a dozen more problems besides. All of which should probably not all that surprising given the essential design of the service relies on loss of privacy to work, and in fact started out as a pseudo-stalking platform of ‘hot’ people on campus.
And perhaps it’s this long history of blatant shenanigans, and frustration over the public only now realising this, but something weird has been happening in the most recent debates about Facebook: the narrative has been turning against the users.
If you’re read an article on the topic, discussed it (ironically enough) on social media, or even chatted with people in person then you’ve likely heard an argument like the one above: “Just delete your account, dummy”. This and many similar lines basically make the point that facebook is a private company and it only exists because users, well, use it.
You don’t like what facebook is doing? Then simply stop using it! If enough people delete their accounts they’ll either be forced to change their behaviour, or end up getting replaced by a competitor. And even if enough people don’t, deleting your own account at least means your data will be safe going forwards and you won’t be exposed to any manipulation by political factions on there. Problem solved, now stop your whining and let’s get on to issues that really matter! And if, after all of this, you decide not to delete your account, then you only have yourself to blame if your info gets stolen! So make the decision and take some damn personal responsibility for your choices. Sheeh!
Now there are some immediate problems with this argument – specifically that facebook gather data from a hell of a lot more than just its direct users. The whole Cambridge Analytical incident was so controversial because it collected not just the data of the direct users, but all their facebook friends as well, without explicit consent from them. Moreover, have you ever been on a website and seen this little icon?
Turns out these little buggers run script in the background as well – and while they won’t be able to collect data on you directly (unless you click them and link to a facebook profile of course) they do capture data passively.
So quitting facebook is not enough to protect you from them, but on the other hand it is still a powerful solution to the problem – rob the site of enough users and their revenue will suffer, and they’ll get the same message; improve your practices or be abandoned for a better alternative.
So that seems all pretty clear cut, right? Facebook is doing bad things so it’s up to its users to teach it a lesson and quit the platform. And if we choose not to, then we can hardly be surprised if facebook continues to do the bad things. How can you blame poor old Zuck for doing his thing when we keep letting him, time and time again?
He’s can only process the data we input into him, guys.
There’s something about this whole narrative which reminds me strongly of The Fappening – the time all those celebrities had their phones hacked and nude photos stolen and leaked across the internet. And amongst all the debate, the same narrative emerged: ‘Hey, if you don’t want your sex tape leaked, don’t make a sex tape! Foolproof solution, this is 100% on the celebrities for being so stupid.’
It’s a persuasive argument that runs into one small obstacle: it’s a total load of horseshit.
The argument that it is up to users of facebook to hold it to account sounds great, but it relies on a number of assumptions to stand up:
- That Facebook is a non-essential service that people can walk away from without consequence;
- That users have the capacity to sufficiently understand the detail of what facebook is doing wrong;
- That users then have the capacity as individuals to do anything about it; and,
- That a better alternative exists.
All four of these are false. To wit:
- Facebook is a luxury you can just walk away from:
Maybe there was a time when social media was a pure luxury, a total triviality that you could quit (assuming you can figure out how) without any serious negative consequences. And maybe that is still true for some users. But to argue that social media can easily be dispensed with wilfully ignores how deeply ingrained it has become in modern society.
Now sure, it’s not like facebook is a service essential to happiness, career or survival – you aren’t going to destroy your life by quitting it (hell you might even be happier). But if you are already invested in the site then the loss to you can be quite significant – personally a significant amount of my social life is organised through facebook, I stay in contact with a dozen different interests and political groups, it serves as a defacto photo album especially for photos I didn’t take myself, and most of all, it’s my way of staying in touch with people I don’t/can’t see regularly.
Now true, I could theoretically rebuild those services for myself without facebooks involvement, but that’s going to be quite the task – extracting all the relevant information, photos and contact details off the site and storing it elsewhere is going to be hard enough, but by far the harder task is maintaining the accuracy of that information over time. People move house or work, change email addresses and phone numbers, forget to use multiple forms of communication to arrange events and ultimately make it extremely likely that you’ll lose track of all but your most intimate friends within months. And that’s without even considering the vast volume and reach of marketing businesses conduct through the site.
So no, it is not a simple matter to just ‘walk away’ from facebook if I don’t want to annihilate my social life in the process. But this just goes to demonstrate the value of the service facebook provides, right? And given they’re a private company, under no obligation to provide that service and having been quite clear in their terms of service for over a decade now, what room do I have to complain if I choose to use their service?
- Users should know better
So if facebook lists its terms of service clearly for all users, how can those users dare to complain that they didn’t know what they were getting into? You signed up to a service and the conditions of use when you did so – end of discussion, you are now responsible for the consequences of that choice, right?
Well quite apart from facebooks shady dealings well outside of those terms of service (looking at you Cambridge Analytica!), there’s one small problem with this idea. Or more specifically, one really long and excruciatingly complicated problem with it:
This is an End User License Agreement or EULA. You have almost certainly failed to read – and then signed – dozens of them in your lifetime. Why? Because they’re part of ever software installation you’ve ever done.
Why haven’t you read them? They were made very obvious to you when you went to install the software, you couldn’t have missed them. So surely if that agreement tells you that the product will steal all your personal data then that’s on you, right?
Well to quote Parks and Recreation:
EULA are pretty much the perfect definition of legalese – the deliberate use of complex legal language to keep the general public from understanding what they’re agreeing to. And boy does it work; research indicates that merely 7% of people ever read them at all, and there’s no word on whether those that did read them actually understood them. A perfect example of this was PC Pitstop who offered $1000 for anyone who emailed them about a clause in their EULA. They had one person win this cash in 7 years.
The simple fact is that it’s ridiculous to assume the average punter has the first clue about what they are signing up for when it comes to most services they use, and even more so that they will understand the details of how the company has been screwing them over behind their backs when that happens. Doubtless this is frustrating to those in the field of IT, but then again I doubt they’d be thrilled to have a mechanic tell them they oughta know enough about car servicing to know they were getting screwed over. We all have our specialities and for the vast majority of people, IT and legal are not theirs.
- Users can effect real change
Now to be fair there’s no denying that if facebook users abandoned (or even protested) the site en mass this problem would be over practically immediately – facebook relies on users to exist and so mass revolt can be a massively powerful tool. Which all sounds like a great idea until you realise every single one of these users are just clueless individuals who want to post cat pictures.
As a unified mass they have power. Sadly, they are not, and never will be a unified mass.
I mean freakin’ Google tried to provoke exactly this sort of mass-exodus when it launched Google+, and even a company that debatably owns the internet couldn’t pull off enough of a critical mass to make it work. So the question then becomes, what can individual users do to compel facebook into behaving properly?
Quick answer: sweet fuck all.
Go ahead and quit the site, kiddo. Facebook will still have all your data, still track you outside its site and either you’ll come crawling back once you realise you’ve got nowhere else to go for the services they offer, or else you can watch your social life dwindle while facebook trundles along without a care.
Or maybe you can submit a formal complaint. Because we know how effective those are.
- There are superior alternatives available, let’s go use them!
In fairness, this argument is quite valid; there are dozens of small companies out there that offer the same services as facebook with significantly better safety and accountability, up to and including end-to-end encryption, making the sort of abuses Zuck enjoys so much, impossible.
Sadly, these all suffer the same two flaws:
- They lack the critical mass of users for them to work properly, meaning that even if you make the switch, your social life will not; and,
- There’s absolutely nothing stopping them from behaving exactly the same way as facebook if they ever got as popular. Sure, they may be pillars of accountability and user experience now, but facebook does what it does for a reason – it’s hella profitable. Meaning that anyone who stole their throne would be presented with the same opportunity for profit, and as current events are so nicely illustrating, there is sweet fuck all to stop facebook or anyone else from making bank by selling your data.
So what is the solution then, smartarse?
Alright then, if consumer action isn’t going to work for four very tangible reasons then what is the solution to all this? Surely I’m not arguing that we should all just roll over and let facebook do whatever it wants while we meekly continue to use their platform?
Absolutely not. Action – clear, decisive and, frankly, brutal action is required to hold facebook accountable for its behaviour. But that action should not be the job of consumers who do not have the capacity to effect any real change.
Nope, that’s what a government is for.
We could debate the precise role of government in society for yonks, but even full-blown capitalists and libertarians agree that they should intervene to ensure the economy functions properly. Well, good news everyone, because this is one of those times. Facebook’s recent shenanigans don’t just screw over their customers, they shake faith in technology, social media and business as a whole. It’s incredibly profitable for facebook and incredibly toxic to the economy and every other actor in it by consequence. They are abusing the power gained through a virtual monopoly on a highly demanded service in order to exploit their customers. Every single one of these things qualifies as a market failure, and government needs to reach over and slap Zuck upside his synthetic exoskeleton until he gets his shit together.
The point I’m making here is that, regardless of whether facebook technically broke the law or not, or whatever users may have agree to when they signed up, there are something that companies should not be allowed to do, even with the consent of users. Give a company the right to exploit users as part of useful service and people will inevitably sign up. Give them the right to make employees compete against each other to keep costs low and works will start infighting. Give them the ability to ask workers to ‘volunteer’ their time for free and so begins virtual slavery, all nice and tidy, legal and with the ‘consent’ of all involved.
By their very nature corporations are concentrations of power, allowing them significant influence over individual works and users. If that power is not checked by minimum standards of conduct by an external body like a government (because ‘self-regulation’ is a contradiction in terms) then there is nothing to stop that power being abused.
Frustrating as it may be to see the general public suddenly clue in to a topic you’ve been pissed about for ages, the sort of populist uproar we’re seeing now should be seen as an opportunity to pull those abusing their power into line, not an opportunity to beat down on those who were slow to catch up, and most definitely not a chance to make excuses for those abusing the power in the first place.