Facebook, the world’s biggest social-media company, has had a terrible 2018.
The company’s stock price plummeted on Wednesday after the attorney-general for the District of Columbia filed a lawsuit alleging Facebook deliberately misled users about the security of their personal data in the case involving Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm linked to U.S. President Donald Trump’s election campaign.
The suit contends that Facebook violated its terms of service by letting a third-party app gather personal data from users under false pretenses, and then did nothing when the data was sold to Cambridge Analytica, even though the company’s officials should have been aware it was happening.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the citizens of Washington, D.C., which means there could be more coming from other jurisdictions. As well, the U.S. Justice Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission have all launched investigations into Facebook related to the Cambridge Analytica affair, which came to light in March.
Facebook is further reeling this week from a report by The New York Times that alleges the unseen trading in personal data exposed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and for which the company’s chairman and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, apologized, was just the tip of the iceberg.
The Times says Facebook gave companies including Microsoft, Spotify, Netflix and Amazon “data-sharing agreements” that let them do things such as obtain the e-mail addresses of Facebook users' friends, or to “read, write and delete users’ private messages, and to see all participants on a thread."
The revelations about the special access, which the Times says began in 2010 and still exists today to some degree, make a mockery of Mr. Zuckerberg’s numerous claims over the years that the privacy of the data Facebook reaps from its 2.2-billion users is a paramount concern to his company.
The company also faces sharp criticism for not doing enough to prevent its website from being used by Russian trolls to spread misinformation during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
In November, the Times further embarrassed the company with an exposé about its efforts to diffuse criticism of its mishandling of the Russian meddling. An agency working for Facebook tried to smear critics by linking them to George Soros, the liberal philanthropist who is a favourite target of the far-right.
The picture that has emerged of Facebook in 2018 is of a company that focused on growth at the expense of its users' interests and its own integrity. But while the degree to which the company has violated its customers' trust is shocking, it’s also not surprising.
After all, Facebook’s product, and that of its biggest competitor, Google, is its customers – or more precisely their e-mail addresses, phone numbers, photos, likes and dislikes, habits and relationships, all of which the company gathers, stores and sells as a commodity known as personal data.
It’s a commodity worth billions of dollars annually, either in the form of revenue from targeted ads on Facebook, or as a tool to lure companies into data-sharing agreements that allow Facebook to gather even more personal information.
A lot of people love Facebook and other social-media sites; they are prepared to trade a little information for the otherwise cost-free reward of getting their online posts “liked” by friends and strangers. And most of the same people regularly give their personal info to banks, online retailers and cellphone companies in exchange for services.
But Facebook, which is largely unregulated, has repeatedly demonstrated that what it tells users about the security and privacy of their data does not align with its actual practices. Mr. Zuckerberg’s equally repetitive apologies and promises to do better have amounted to deflections that have bought time for Facebook to continue to betray its users' trust in order to fuel its massive growth over the past decade.
Users who feel betrayed can close their Facebook accounts, as more and more people are advocating. But what they really need is for governments to regulate Facebook, Google and other mass data businesses, and to make it financially onerous for companies that gather personal data to abuse users' trust.
So far, regulators in Canada and the United States have let down the millions and millions who use social media. If 2018 tells us anything, it is that it is time for them to finally act.