BOB GARFIELD: The toothpaste is, indeed, out of the tube but, as University of Virginia Media Studies Professor Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote this week in Slate, Facebook started squeezing that tube years ago.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: App developers, for a long time, could get access to tremendous collections of data about millions of Facebook users at any given time. This was standard practice and policy at Facebook between at least 2010 and 2015, and that seems to have been lost in the story because the Cambridge Analytica story is such a great spy novel. It has this idea that there's brainwashing and manipulation going on, right, that’s almost irresistible. For years, we’ve been raising these issues and everyone's been saying, where's the harm? Well, here we are. We’re finally at that moment.
BOB GARFIELD: There is this impulse in, in the press because Cambridge Analytica has mainly arch-conservative clients, including briefly the Trump campaign, and because the Mercer family has such a big stake in the company that to portray all of this is the latest evil manipulation from the far right. But Obama used approximately the same techniques, no?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Now, in 2008 Facebook was pretty new and the idea was this is where the youngsters are, right? This is [LAUGHS] long before my mom joined Facebook. And so, Barack Obama spent a lot of time interacting with people on Facebook. There were Facebook groups devoted to supporting Obama. And he bought a lot of ads on Facebook before that was a thing to do. So he was the Facebook candidate. And then by 2012, the Obama campaign developed an app that sucked out all of the data, the same kinds of data that Cambridge Analytica now has been using to allegedly profile voters, right?
A lot of us were concerned about this in 2012, and it was really hard to get anyone to care. All the stories that came out were about the digital savvy of the Obama campaign. After the Obama campaign, Facebook decided, let's take all this in house, let’s become the political consultant to the world. You have to go to Facebook. Cambridge Analytica claimed to be able to profile people by personality type which is about as useful as profiling people by astrological sign. There is no evidence that you can move behavior just because you tag people with a relative score for openness or conscientiousness or neuroticism, right? Isn't it better just to know someone really cares about gun rights or really cares about abortion? That can move a voter. And that's what Facebook gives people.
BOB GARFIELD: Can you tell me what Facebook is allowed to do and what it's not allowed to do with the data it collects?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Facebook got in big trouble back in 2011. The Federal Trade Commission got some complaints from Facebook users and from some privacy organizations. They were worried that all of these application developers that had tied themselves onto Facebook, FarmVille, Mafia Wars or Words With Friends, those games were sucking out all kinds of important data from people's Facebook profiles. And that's because when you signed up to use these games, you gave them permission to look at your profile and take out basic information. What was not clear was that you were also granting these games permission to take out all the information about your friends. That was something that the Federal Trade Commission wanted to call a halt to. So in 2011, they got Facebook to agree to a consent decree, and that consent decree basically said, look, Facebook, you can't have this sort of activity where friends’ data also gets exported. You also have to get explicit permission from people when they interact with apps that are going to take their data out. Beyond that, they put the burden on Facebook to make sure that when that data exits Facebook it doesn't go to a fourth party and if people cancel their Facebook accounts, that Facebook goes out into the field and makes sure that those game developers, those app developers, those personality quiz developers, those political campaigns, like the Obama campaign in 2012, that those developers remove the data from their collections. So this was something Facebook agreed to do under penalty of law back in 2011.
But clearly, Facebook did not institute a program to make sure that your data would disappear if you deleted it from Facebook. Facebook did not enforce contracts with third-party app developers to make sure that fourth parties, like Cambridge Analytica, didn’t get that data.
BOB GARFIELD: So Zuckerberg, after disappearing from public view for three or four days, on Wednesday issues a memo and goes on CNN with Anderson Cooper and sits for a Q&A with the New York Times in a sort of mea culpa, saying, you know, we let this stuff get away from us, we didn't closely audit these third parties like app developers who have possession of all of this extremely personal data. But it seemed to me he was shifting the blame to them for breaking the deals that they signed, instead of taking responsibility for all this going on. You have seen Facebook operate in the public eye now for more than 10 years. Do you think that he was being straight with the New York Times and CNN and all of us?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: You know, Zuckerberg promised to install a bunch of new safeguards for user privacy. He didn't get into detail. But just looking at the outline of what he said would happen, I can't help wondering if Facebook wasn't already going to do all these things because in August European law is going to require a much higher level of scrutiny and many more restrictions on how companies like Facebook operate with our data. They have a whole new set of laws coming into effect. It’s going to change how all of these companies operate in Europe. And anybody whose data gets exported to Europe or anybody who communicates with anyone in Europe, meaning Americans, you know, they’re going to be protected by European laws, as well.
So I suspect that all that Zuckerberg was promising yesterday is stuff that Facebook was already planning to do to deal with European law. Right now his biggest concern is Congress.
BOB GARFIELD: If these issues have existed for the whole history of Facebook and if the company has signed consent agreements and it has the capacity to do all of the things that Zuckerberg on Wednesday claimed to be now undertaking, you have to wonder, well, why hasn’t it actually done this stuff ‘til now? Is it because it's antithetical to its business model?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Yeah. There’s only two things wrong with Facebook, what it is and what it does, right? So what it demands of us is our attention. It wants us hooked. Really, the company is geared around the fact that there is a true belief at the core of the company and in Mark Zuckerberg’s heart and soul that the more time we spend on Facebook, the better we will be to each other. It’s a missionary model, right? It’s an almost faith-based model. Thousands of years of human history notwithstanding, Mark Zuckerberg believes that the more we interact with each other, the better we will be to each other.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you think he is really that messianic or that that's just a rationalization for the business model, which is more like the heroin dealer's business model?
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: It is antithetical to Facebook's business model. It's antithetical to the dominant business model of Silicon Valley. It's also antithetical to the ideology of Mark Zuckerberg, and I think Mark Zuckerberg is a true believer in Facebook. I see no reason to doubt his sincerity. He’s a deeply intelligent and sincere person who cares a lot about the state of the world.
The problem with Mark Zuckerberg is he’s deeply uneducated. He seemed to have started on this route without pondering the terrible things that human beings can and have done to each other. He seems not to have considered the possibility that our hard problems are not merely solved by proximity and connection. It’s a naïve ideology that he holds but it’s actually pretty pervasive in Silicon Valley because it was pervasive in the hacker communities of the 1990s from which he emerged. This notion that if ideas and information flow freely and without friction, suddenly we would all know more and food would taste better, I mean, this was a serious line of thought in the 1990s, and it’s still with us. You can still see it in the core ideologies of Google and Facebook and a hundred other companies. The last two years should have shaken him out a bit but, you know, he still spends too much time having lunch with Henry Kissinger in Davos and not enough time reading Aristotle or reading National Geographic, for that matter, right, and seeing the ways in which the world is a lot more complex place than he allows.
BOB GARFIELD: We now have had more than 10 years of experience of Facebook letting private data get into the third-party hands and for marketers and governments and criminals to have an ever- higher resolution picture of ourselves. This is not new, and yet, we continue to have this conversation.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: It doesn’t mean it has to be that way. It doesn't mean that they have to call the shots for the world. Our great hope lies in our activity as citizens demanding that our regulators and our legislators take this problem seriously. But I just don't see how Facebook can deeply confront the wide variety of problems facing it and the wide variety of problems that it has caused in the world, without looking at its core functions, its advertising system, it's data-gathering system, its algorithm. And once you do that, you basically have to dismantle Facebook if you want to address these problems in a serious way.
BOB GARFIELD: Siva, thank you very much.
SIVA VAIDHYANATHAN: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Siva Vaidhyanathan is a professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. His forthcoming book, Antisocial Media, will be published in September.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, we revisit the old argument over new tech, the internet, “threat or menace”?