We’re All Zucked

Tepid regulations aren’t enough to break Facebook’s hold on our personal data.

Jacob Silverman

Activists placed 100 cutouts of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on the southeast lawn of the U.S. Capitol on April 10, the day of his testimony before Congress. (c) Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post VIA Getty Images

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.

As it is, Facebook retains an empire’s global reach with a colonizer’s rough touch.

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. 

Jacob Sil­ver­man is the author of Terms of Ser­vice: Social Media and the Price of Con­stant Con­nec­tion. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at The Baf­fler and has writ­ten about tech­nol­o­gy, cul­ture and pol­i­tics for the Los Ange­les Times, the New York Times,</i? <i>The New Repub­lic and oth­er publications.
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