As fresh allegations of an executive-level cover up at Facebook regarding who knew what and when emerge, the one year anniversary of the Cambridge Analytica scandal when investigative journalists revealed the company had been harvesting personal data from 87 million Facebook profiles for political campaigning purposes has arrived. This comes a day after the academic, Aleksandr Kogan, whose quiz app was central to the allegations of data hoovering, sued the social network for defamation. All of which leaves me wondering what, if anything, Mark Zuckerberg has learned from this, the most turbulent year in the history of Facebook?
Facebook was engulfed in a veritable tidal wave of privacy-driven angst at the time, but that angst didn’t turn into any mass user migration away from the social media giant. According to Goldman Sachs the number of users, at least those accessing the service via mobile devices, increased by 7% during the month that the scandal was headline news. This suggests that the lure of Facebook and its central role in connecting friends, family and strangers alike has not suffered greatly in the eyes of the average user. Which isn’t to say that Zuckerberg has escaped without criticism as a quick polling of the twitterverse revealed this week. I asked what lessons Mark Zuckerberg might have learned, the suggestions ranged from “That despite all the lather and bluster, he can still trouser a pile of cash and he can’t be touched” to “Literally, none. It’s that we have learned more about Mark Zuckerberg – and the lengths he will go to to continue Facebook’s questionable practices.” Those opinions would appear apposite given that Facebook shares quickly bounced back to cover the initial $100 billion loss. Regulatory pressure wasn’t overly effective either. Sure, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the U.K. fined Facebook £500,000 ($645,000), the maximum amount possible at the time, which is but spare change to a business as big as Facebook. Had Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) been in in play at the time, Facebook could have been fined 4% of its global turnover which would have been around £1.3 billion ($1.8 billion).
So, a year on, what has changed both in terms of how ‘we, the people’ perceive expectations of privacy in the online space and just as importantly what the Facebook view looks like? There’s no doubting that data privacy has moved front and center into the awareness of the average online user during these last 12 months. Equally there is little doubt that Facebook is having to move with the times and recognize this increased expectation for more control over who uses our data and for what purpose. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, insists that he has a ‘privacy-focused vision for social networking.’ In his blog posting of the same name, Zuckerberg says that “we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories” and insists “the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages.” Not everyone, myself included, is convinced that merging WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger infrastructures to create a unified messaging platform is the answer to the Facebook privacy problem. “After the debacle with Facebook selling data to Cambridge Analytics it’s only a matter of time that the consolidated data from the world’s most popular messaging platforms become the next black gold for Facebook’s growth” says John Safa, founder of protected content sharing platform Pushfor, who adds “we’ve created this nightmare by our passion to share everything we do, say or think on these online platforms.”
This seems at odds with Zuckerberg’s recent claim that Facebook is an innovator in privacy. “All of the success that Facebook has had… has been because we’ve given people new private or semi-private ways to communicate things that they wouldn’t have had before” Zuckerberg says. Derek Roga, CEO of secure mobile communication platform EQUIIS Technologies, argues that Facebook will never be known as a champion of data privacy. “Without continuing to subtract data from its users” Roga says “Facebook would need to change its entire business model which may result in a decline in financial results – a sacrifice I doubt the company will want to make.” Certainly the recently revealed case of third-party apps feeding personal data back to Facebook even if, in some cases, the user wasn’t logged in or didn’t have a Facebook account, provides food for thought. It turns out that Roga wasn’t all that surprised when this story broke. “Big players like Facebook have built their ad businesses on audience and user data” he explains, continuing “the company proposed a ‘clear history tool‘ in an effort to win user trust again and create transparency, but the delays to this product suggests Facebook still sees value in holding onto personal data.”
Roga’s assertion is bolstered by the fact that earlier this week the New York Times reported how federal prosecutors are “conducting a criminal investigation into data deals Facebook struck with some of the world’s largest technology companies.” Forbes contributor Zak Doffman says “It is yet more of the same post-Cambridge Analytica – private data being treated as a tradable commodity, with no thought to the implications or ethics of doing so.” None of which means that Facebook has violated any criminal laws, of course, but according to one report “there are numerous reasons why Facebook’s decision to share users’ information with app developers or other outside companies was ill-advised…” Zuckerberg and Facebook continue to make moves in the right direction to be fair, but it remains to be seen just how committed the social network is to giving users control over their own information as well as providing complete transparency into all data shared with Facebook and how it is used.
this article originally appeared on Forbes