This may come as a shock to most people, but Facebook is not really a social media company.
Sure, they offer a place where you can connect with your friends and family and keep them in the loop about what you’re doing—but that’s just the part of their product that is public facing, and is actually quite incidental to their business model. What really keeps the door open and the cash flowing is data: the information that you freely share about yourself, your interests, your travel, what you buy, what you eat, what you drive, where you live—all the stuff you post in the course of keeping your Facebook friends up to date on what’s going on in your life. In that respect, the social media aspect of the company merely functions as a portal giving them access to what’s really important.
Which happens to be you.
Because all that information you give them is valuable. Advertisers can use it to sell you everything from dog food to intimate apparel. Television networks can use it to entice you to watch their latest offerings. And politicians can use it to target you for their get out the vote efforts. Facebook, of course, is more than happy to offer up this data to anybody who might want it—for a price. That’s how founder Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire running a company that gives away its social media service for free. His users are the actual product, and his customers are the ones who pay handsomely for access to them.
Sound creepy? It is—but every single one of Facebook’s two billion active users have explicitly agreed to it, whether they realize it or not, by accepting its terms of service. Which is why I have a hard time generating a lot of sympathy for people who suddenly have concerns that their privacy has been violated because Facebook allowed their data to be used for something they don’t like.
Case in point: the Cambridge Analytica “scandal,” in which the data-mining company supposedly harvested Facebook data in order to target voters for messaging favorable to the Trump campaign. The media have been treating this as the biggest data breach since the DNC email hack, when in reality it’s nothing that Barack Obama didn’t already do—and to widespread media acclaim at the time. The difference is that when Facebook helps Democrats, it’s a force for good. When it helps Trump, however, it’s an evil force that must be destroyed.
Which brings us back to Mark Zuckerberg. Liberals are now calling for his head, as he’s become the latest in a long line of scapegoats for Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016. After remaining silent on the subject for the last few days—probably a mistake in this age of viral outrage—he has emerged with an explanation as to what happened with Cambridge Analytica:
In 2013, a Cambridge University researcher named Aleksandr Kogan created a personality quiz app. It was installed by around 300,000 people who shared their data as well as some of their friends' data. Given the way our platform worked at the time this meant Kogan was able to access tens of millions of their friends' data..
In 2015, we learned from journalists at The Guardian that Kogan had shared data from his app with Cambridge Analytica. It is against our policies for developers to share data without people's consent, so we immediately banned Kogan's app from our platform, and demanded that Kogan and Cambridge Analytica formally certify that they had deleted all improperly acquired data. They provided these certifications.
Last week, we learned from The Guardian, The New York Times and Channel 4 that Cambridge Analytica may not have deleted the data as they had certified. We immediately banned them from using any of our services. Cambridge Analytica claims they have already deleted the data and has agreed to a forensic audit by a firm we hired to confirm this. We're also working with regulators as they investigate what happened.
To which Congress, which loves to stick its big bazoo in where it doesn’t belong, responded in the form of a tweet from Ed Ma(la)rkey, the junior Senator from Massachusetts:
Because how a private company implements its internal policies is totes the government’s business.
Recode asked Zuckerberg whether he was prepared to give evidence to Congress. "You know, I'm open to doing that," Zuckerberg said.
He continued: "We actually do this fairly regularly, right? There are high profile ones like the Russian investigation, but there are lots of different topics that Congress needs and wants to know about. And the way that we approach it, is that our responsibility is to make sure that they have access to all the information that they need to have. So, I'm open to doing it."
Interviewer Kara Swisher pushed Zuckerberg on whether being "open" to testifying was a yes or no to actually doing it. She noted that "they want you, Mark."
"Well look, I am not 100% sure that's right," Zuckerberg replied. "But the point of congressional testimony is to make sure that Congress gets the data in the information context that they need.
Want a piece of friendly advice, Mark? If I were you, I’d tell Congress to go Zuck themselves.
A hearing like that would only serve two purposes. One, it would give senators a chance to grandstand for the cameras, as they always do, which they would use to make you grovel and then beg them to come in and regulate your company. Two, they would spend the entire time raking you over the coals about Russian bots, fake news, and how you are really the one responsible for Hillary Clinton’s loss. Democrats simply cannot accept their own culpability for fielding an unlikable, tin-eared and corrupt candidate who blew an election that was supposed to be hers to lose—and since the whole Putin collusion thing isn’t working out, they’ll be looking to hang it on you, Mark.
Tell them if they want you to testify under oath, they better get a subpoena. Until such time as they do, Facebook is your business—and none of theirs.