Facebook Inc. has been under the gun in the wake of revelations about how user data were collected, and exploited for political purposes. On Monday, an analyst report warned of a temporary pullback in advertising and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission confirmed it’s investigating the social network’s privacy practices.
The data issue has reverberations in Canada: Christopher Wylie, the man who helped found Cambridge Analytica, the firm at the heart of the controversy, and then became its whistle-blower, is Canadian and has done work with the federal Liberal Party. Mr. Wylie has also said he helped start a B.C.-based consultancy company that did work helping the “leave” side of the Brexit vote to circumvent campaign spending laws.
In his first interview since taking on the head job at Facebook Canada in December, Garrick Tiplady talked to The Globe and Mail about his priorities for the company and rebuilding trust with its users.
The Cambridge Analytica situation has deep Canadian roots. The question that may raise in some Canadians’ minds is: We’ve seen Brexit, we’ve seen the U.S. election. Are the upcoming elections in Canada vulnerable?
First and foremost, it’s our job to ensure the platform is safe. We launched, several months ago, the Elections Integrity Initiative, coming out of what we saw in the U.S. Within Canada specifically, coming out of the [Communications Security Establishment] report [in June, which warned that “hacktivist groups will deploy cybercapabilities in an attempt to influence the democratic process in 2019”], there are really two main initiatives. One is cybersecurity, making sure that if any parliamentarian has been hacked, there is an immediate response. In addition we’re working with MediaSmarts on digital literacy, making sure people have information so they can make educated decisions about what they see. That’s where “view ads” comes in. [A tab on the Facebook pages of political parties and brands that will show any ads that page is running, and each ad’s target audience.] It’s the next level of standards around transparency. We’ve rolled that out in Canada and we’re planning to roll it out globally.
The events of last week related to data that were being shared with friends through an app. That was shut down three years ago. We take full responsibility for that, and we’re putting in more processes to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We’re adding 10,000 people [globally] in the organization – so going from 10,000 to [eventually] 20,000, we’re at 14,000 now – solely focused on safety and security on the platform. We’re continuing to invest so we’re ahead of the curve.
The specific issue of apps that ask for permission to view friends’ profiles with low security settings, has been addressed. But the problem of data is bigger than Facebook: the entire digital economy, the promise of digital advertising, is based on advertisers being able to see who is online and to know what their behaviours and preferences are, so that they can target ads. That requires a lot of data. It requires continuing to surveil people. Is this a problem that can even be fixed?
It’s our responsibility to make sure that customers’ data are safe, and that customers know how to manage their data online. I think there’s a world – and I believe our platform does this today – where we can continue to allow our customers to have the privacy and the ability to manage their own data in a way that’s transparent, with complete control, but also allow advertisers to continue to send targeted messages to those customers. Not in a personally identified way, but on an aggregated basis.
But there have been reports that the Custom Audiences tool you use to target ads has been vulnerable to re-identifying that anonymized data. Are you working on that?
That’s at the core of everything we do. We don’t sell personalized data, point blank. On the anonymized side, as long as we continue to make sure that nobody has access to that personal information, that’s where we want to continue to invest.
A new Angus-Reid poll found that 64 per cent of Canadians surveyed said they plan to either change their privacy settings or cut down on their Facebook use because of the data issue. And a further 10 per cent said they are thinking of shutting down their Facebook accounts or suspending them. This is having an impact in Canada. Is that entirely negative? Is it maybe even healthy that people change their behavior on Facebook?
That really gets to the heart of this trust component. If we can’t keep our customers safe, we don’t deserve to serve them. Period. So we need to make sure that we put the tools in place; we have the policies; we include tools on the platform. We have to do that. People should know how their data are being used, and we need to make sure that is far more visible on our platform.
People leaving the platform are pushed to deactivate – which leaves all their data with Facebook – rather than delete their accounts altogether, which is also an option. There’s a lot about the privacy settings that default to sharing information rather than not sharing, and it can feel like a lot of work to keep those settings locked down. The default to share more of your data with Facebook helps with your business model, since your customers are ultimately your advertisers. But are you giving any thought to a need to introduce a new default where things are locked down unless someone explicitly opts in?
The one thing that has really struck me about Facebook coming in, is how committed the company is to transparency and user control. That has been the approach I’ve seen with the executive team.
Recently some marketers have raised some concerns. Subway Restaurants said they are decreasing ad spend on Facebook over concerns that their ads weren’t being seen; and there have been reports that Facebook more recently has had to do outreach with marketers who are worried about the data revelations. Are you hearing concerns in Canada?
Over the last week, the conversation has changed. I’ve spoken to quite a few of our partners. While there are a lot of hard questions of late, when we describe what we’re doing to improve the platform, our partners are pleased with where we’re going.
Regulators are starting to sit up and take notice. Here in Canada, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner is formally investigating Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica data, and the House ethics committee voted to investigate as well. Mark Zuckerberg has said he’s open to regulation. What do you think would be appropriate regulatory steps to address this?
We welcome all of the discussions. The way Mark characterized it, it’s not a matter of when but what kind of regulation – when we look at regulation, we believe there needs to be a much higher standard of transparency around ads. Some of the work we’ve already started to do, we’re not waiting for regulation.
Do you think Facebook is bad for democracy?
I believe the mission of Facebook in bringing people together and engaging with community is absolutely the right thing to do. With that comes a huge amount of responsibility. We need to make sure that the platform has the protections in place to protect against that.
A big competitor of yours, Google, has been vocal about its responsibility to sustaining journalism. Facebook is where a lot of people are getting their news. Have you thought about your role in the information ecosystem, the potential need to prioritize higher-quality information?
We have. We have a big responsibility to make sure the sources people see are trusted sources. We’ve got capabilities in place to make sure that some of the content you referenced earlier is being de-prioritized or taken off the platform altogether. We’ve got a big commitment to that.
Quality of information is one thing, but how do you fix the Facebook filter bubble, where people only hear from the community they’ve chosen?
It is hard. The filter bubble question, I have this conversation all the time. When you think about it, the interactions you have with your friends, I can tell you my friends have a very diverse set of opinions. You are getting that mix. We’re never going to get it 100 per cent right. But we need to continue to promote diversity in conversation. Social media in general is actually promoting more diverse discussion than you would have otherwise.
This interview has been edited and condensed