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Mark Zuckerberg promises change, but Facebook has failed to follow through in the past

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence about what he acknowledged was a "breach of trust" with the public, after news investigations found Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data on 50 million Facebook users. Zuckerberg also said steps had been taken to prevent these problems before. Hari Sreenivasan gets reaction from Tim Wu of Columbia Law School.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg broke his silence about what he acknowledged was a breach of trust with the public.

    It came after news investigations found Cambridge Analytica, a firm used by the Trump campaign, improperly obtained data on 50 million Facebook users.

    In his statement on Facebook, Zuckerberg wrote: "We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't, then we don't deserve to serve you." He said steps had been taken to prevent these problems before, but he said: "We also made mistakes. There's more to do."

    Those changes will include auditing apps that use Facebook data and investigating apps that used large amounts of data before the company changed its policies in 2014. It will also try to restrict some access to future data.

    Tim Wu of Columbia Law School joins us for reaction now. He writes extensively about the Web, privacy, data collection. He's the author of "The Attention Merchants."

    Thanks for joining us.

    First, your reaction to the statement.

  • Tim Wu:

    Sure. You know, I think it was good that they took responsibility, but I still think that, you know, not coming fully clean about what happened and what they're going to do here.

    One thing that's very notable is, they agreed to do all this stuff back in 2011, and it looks like they didn't live up to the promises then. So the question is, what makes us believe them now?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And this was when they were in — under a consent decree by the Federal Trade Commission.

  • Tim Wu:

    Yes, that's exactly right.

    So, in 2011, the Federal Trade Commission — I was working there at the time — found that they had let the apps take all kinds of data from people and do whatever they like.

    And Facebook agreed, as you said, in the consent decree, that they'd no longer allow this to happen. Now it turns out it has happened, and it's happened repeatedly. So I'm not just as reassured as you might think, given that they have already broken similar promises, that they will keep these promises in the future.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right, we have a piece of video from "Frontline," an upcoming film that's going to come out with one of the former employees.

    Let's take a listen to what he said.

  • Sandy Parakilas:

    I ended up in an interesting situation where, because I had been the main person who was working on privacy issues with respect to the Facebook platform, which had many, many, many privacy issues — it was a real hornet's nest of problems, because they were giving access to all this Facebook data to developers with very few controls.

    And because I had been one of the only people who was really focused on this issue, we ended up in a situation a few weeks before the IPO where the press had been calling out these issues over and over again, and they had been pointing out the ways in which Facebook had not been meeting its obligations.

    And I ended up in a meeting with a bunch of the most senior executives of the company. And they sort of went around the room and said, well, you know who's in charge of fixing this huge problem which has been called out in the press as one of the two biggest problems for the company going into the biggest tech IPO in history? And the answer was me.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tim, that was Sandy Parakilas. He's a platform operations manager between 2011 and 2012.

    Obviously, the company is much bigger now, has far more resources, but, as you say, they have said before, that they're going to clean up their act.

  • Tim Wu:

    Yes, I mean, that's the problem, is that they keep saying this, but, you know, there's this recidivism problem. They keep not really doing anything.

    And I think that the problem is that their model depends on accumulating data and giving it to advertisers. And anything that comes close to threatening that business model, they don't really seem that interested in doing something serious about it.

    You know, I understand that, but I think the time of "trust us" has got to be over.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Are any of the changes that they're proposing today going to fundamentally change the business model you're talking about?

  • Tim Wu:

    No, I don't think so at all.

    You know, the — fundamentally, Facebook is a surveillance machine. They get as much data as they can, and they promise advertisers that they're able to manipulate us, and that is at the core. And so, you know, they started this by saying, well, this wasn't really a data breach, this is our normal business model, which I think should tell you something, and then later said, well, it's not so great, and so forth.

    But they're really showing an unwillingness to do something more serious about this problem. And it keeps happening over and over again. This time, it's the app platform. Another times, it's Russians buying ads.

    There is just something not right here with this company and their unwillingness to come clean. And I think that the idea, well, just trust because Zuckerberg wrote a message on Facebook, that everything is going to be fine is really something government investigators cannot trust.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This is after the fact, but they're saying now that they're willing to have app developers be audited or require that kind of layer of verification or authentication.

    But in the case of Cambridge Analytica or the particular app developer, that person was supposed to certify that the data was gone.

  • Tim Wu:


    No, I will add to that. In the 2011 settlement, they agreed that they'd set up a verification system for apps to make sure apps never did the kinds of things they were doing before. That was in 2011. And now we're talking about stuff happening afterwards.

    And so whatever verification systems are going on, I guess they're like, well, it's something like whatever — they're accepting promises from the app developments. They're not really taking measures.

    And once again, I think the concern in Facebook's heart is that, at some point, this will hurt their advertising revenue and the promises they have made investors. And so they're unwilling to take serious steps.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, Tim, at scale, what can actually be done, if we sort of abstract larger to Facebook, to Google, to Twitter, a lot of the tech platforms that have so much information about us?

  • Tim Wu:

    You know, it is a great question. And I think the fundamental problem is, they're all dependent on this pure advertising model, you know, nothing but trying to get as much data out of us and sell as much as they can of our time and attention to other people.

    And that just leads in very dark directions. I think we need to start patronizing subscription-based services, that they need to start rethinking these business models, because they have really reached an intolerable level for American society. And it's starting to threaten American democracy and other values we hold dear.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This is also prompting government to take a look and say perhaps we need to stake a more active role in regulating the space.

    Does government even have the capacity and the tools to try to figure out how to monitor or set up the rules of the road on how these companies can operate?

  • Tim Wu:

    I mean, we thought we did at the FTC when we put in that consent degree, but obviously it didn't really do anything.

    So, yes, I think there's a serious problem here. And I think part of the problem is, we haven't wanted, like Europe, to sort of get serious because we're worried about hurting these businesses, which are, after all, American darlings.

    But, you know, when the costs become this serious, where it starts to be about the viability of our republic and about, you know, the manipulation of people, I think that we need to take a much more serious look and understand and, for example, look at what the Europeans are doing and see if there's something to learn.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:


    All right, Tim Wu of Columbia Law School, thanks so much.

  • Tim Wu:

    Yes. It's a pleasure.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Online, we discuss what Facebook knows about you and how you can adjust your privacy settings.

    That's at Facebook.com/NewsHour.

    And you can watch more of "Frontline"'s Facebook insider story at PBS.org/Frontline.

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