Thanks to colliding scandals surrounding fake news and the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, Facebook is dealing with the greatest crisis in its history. But it remains to be seen whether the social platform will suffer a mass user exodus — Google searches for how to delete Facebook spiked enormously in March— or face onerous regulations. The company has been pursuing a strategy of cagey cooperation, approving of possible new regulatory measures without being overly enthusiastic about them. Stock prices proved resilient even during Mark Zuckerberg’s frequently awkward congressional testimony, and overall the company seems unshaken.
These latest events signal Facebook’s political and social maturation — years too late, of course, for a company with such profound influence over more than 2 billion lives. As part of its growing up, Facebook has promised to respect the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which the European Union is adopting in May. Widely considered the frontline of personal data privacy law, the GDPR will provide more rights for European consumers to manage and delete their own data, learn immediately about data breaches and easily port their data to competing services. But it is less an overthrow of the status quo than a sanding down of its sharper edges.
As long as Facebook is faced with this kind of relatively mild state intervention, its power— for good and ill — will remain mostly unchallenged.
Rather than being emancipatory, regulatory measures such as the GDPR institutionalize surveillance capitalism, corralling it into familiar systems of bureaucratic management and regulatory capture. Larger structural reform — socializing data and its profits on behalf of a common public — is never considered. Personal data becomes cemented in the marketplace as the great commodity of the age, the engine for elaborate analytical systems that allow Facebook to predict and shape consumer behavior on behalf of advertisers.
If we truly controlled our data, we would have more mechanisms by which to withhold it from Facebook’s surveillance machine. Zuckerberg likes to emphasize the granular privacy controls attached to each Facebook post, but he says far less about efforts to track web activity en masse (including every site with a “Like” button), nor does he comment on the company’s reported deals with data brokers to procure information about users’ offline habits. Were Zuckerberg to be more open, users might begin to ask why surveillance has to be the price of modern communication.
Having established its sovereignty over our data, we shouldn’t expect Facebook to give it up easily. The company’s outlook is at once strong and perilous. It is a well-established monopoly, with a canny capacity to buy up would-be rivals. And yet Facebook could still find itself suddenly “disrupted” by a rival network that users trust more — perhaps one that doesn’t rely on the monetization of personal data through advertising. (Such platforms, including Mastodon, Ello and Diaspora, have failed in the past but may find a more amenable audience now.) The company could suffer more embarrassing leaks and breaches. Spurred on by angry constituents, the patience of politicians and regulators (in both parties) might run out, forcing an antitrust investigation that would sit alongside investigations already underway in Europe, Australia and several U.S. states. These investigations could in turn lead to breakup efforts or painful fines.
The company faces other serious problems. Hijacked by fake news bots and other forms of manipulation, Facebook’s platform has been accused of contributing to political violence, even genocide, in Myanmar, India and the Philippines. Illicit businesses fester on the site, as Facebook is used for everything from selling opioids — for which several congressmen hammered Zuckerberg — to trading in stolen credit cards. Facebook’s moderation capabilities are woefully behind, even as the company has promised to hire thousands more moderators — usually low-wage workers in overseas cubicle farms who become traumatized after screening hundreds of graphic images per day. Zuckerberg touts the company’s forthcoming AI efforts but admits that truly automated solutions might be five years away. To some AI experts, even that is a fantasy.
As it is, Facebook retains an empire’s global reach with a colonizer’s rough touch. There may not be another product so widely used and so deeply disliked. To many of its customers, Facebook is essential and useless, indispensable and annoying, addictive and numbing. To quit is too difficult — easier to give in to a weary cynicism. After all, if we have learned anything from Facebook’s proliferating scandals, it’s that the company’s surveillance machine is indifferent to us. It cares not what we do.