Facebook scandal: What's next after admission of 'mistakes'?

March 22, 2018 14:48
Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg have come under fire for failing to prevent misuse of user data for political purposes. Photo: Bloomberg

Social media giant Facebook is facing its biggest crisis ever as it struggles to contain the damage from the latest data privacy scandal.

Following revelations that a consultancy, Cambridge Analytica, had improperly accessed information on about 50 million Facebook users to deliver targeted political ads, the US internet giant confronts the prospect of investigations from multiple agencies and jurisdictions.

The company's data practices, and even its business model, are being called into question.

Some lawmakers have already issued calls for tighter regulation and stringent restrictions on online platforms, particularly Facebook which boasts about 2.2 billion monthly active users worldwide.

Late last week, news surfaced that Cambridge Analytica, a London-headquartered consulting firm, had tapped into data on millions of American Facebook users to help support Donald Trump's 2016 US presidential campaign.

The shocking news led to fresh questions as to how Facebook is handling the trove of information on its users and whether it is doing enough to safeguard their privacy.

Moreover, the company was found wanting in its response to the scandal, a situation that led to its stock taking a beating and causing the firm to lose several billions in market value this week.

Facebook not only failed to take full responsibility for the user data abuse, top executives maintained total silence for a long time after the scandal broke.

It was only on Wednesday that the social network's co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, finally spoke out on the matter.

In a statement posted on his Facebook page, Zuckerberg admitted that the social network "made mistakes" that led to data on millions of users being exploited by a political consultancy.

Acknowledging that a "breach of trust" had occurred, the CEO promised corrective steps in the form of tighter controls on third-party apps on the Facebook platform.

Facebook has a responsibility to protect user data, he said. "If we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you.”

Zuckerberg then said he has been working to understand exactly what happened and how to make sure this doesn’t happen again. We "made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it,” he said.

But there was no explicit apology to users or investors. 

Prior to the Zuckerberg post, Facebook issued a separate statement in which it said: "Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue."

Sheryl refers to Facebook's chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, the company's second-in-command.

Zuckerberg's admission that Facebook made "mistakes" is seen as tactical language as the company and top executives prepare for questioning by lawmakers in the US, UK and the European Union.

Admitting lapses may be the first step in damage control.

Zuckerberg spoke about mistakes, but he did not tell users what type of mistakes were made. Nevertheless, his public statement should at least help prevent the scandal from escalating further, for now.

According to some reports, Zuckerberg had been focusing his energies on how to put the lid on the matter rather than devote time as to what he should say to the public.

In his statement Wednesday, the Facebook chief said the firm plans to investigate all the apps on its platform, restrict developer access to data, and give members a tool that lets them more easily disable access to their Facebook data. 

Zuckerberg and Facebook cannot evade responsibility for the data breach as the social network's users did not grant the right to the firm to transfer their data to other parties for any purpose.

Users may be fine with Facebook using their profiles to generate advertising income, seeing it as the price to be paid for a free service. But that doesn’t mean Facebook can sell the data for election campaign analysis or to direct targeted political ads in a surreptitious manner.

On Facebook’s privacy page, the firm says it will only share user information to third-party partners on certain criteria. The purpose of collecting user information, it suggests, is mainly for service and product improvement, and to ensure that any ads directed at the users are relevant to their needs. There is no mention of using the information for political or election analysis.

But now, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has become clear that user data was misused for political purposes.

Facebook had earlier faced heat for failing to prevent Russia-linked entities from posting content aimed at stirring discord among US voters ahead of America's 2016 presidential election.  

The latest user data breach scandal will only add to Facebook's woes and the regulatory scrutiny of the platform. 

Apart from lawmakers, Facebook also needs to face up to its users, many of whom are feeling a sense of betrayal over misuse of their personal data.  

The data breach scandal is prompting some users to think of quitting Facebook to protect their online safety, as they take note of a "Delete Facebook" campaign launched by a few activists. 

Such efforts, however, may not go very far as Facebook also controls WhatsApp and Instagram, two widely used social messaging tools.

For social media users, there seems to be no escape from the Facebook influence. Hence, what they really need to do is put pressure, through all available means, on the social network giant to clean up its act.

As for Facebook itself, there is no doubt that the data breach marks the most significant setback in its history.

The company needs to fix its problems on a war-footing if it is to win back user trust. We can only wait and see if Zuckerberg and his team can rise up to the challenge.

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EJ Insight writer