Another big story this week, bad news for Facebook. Data for 87 million users may have been accessed by Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm used by the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced in a post that the company is now putting stronger rules in place for campaign ads and will verify the identity and location of all organizations who want to place ads in the future. The company will also begin limiting the amount of data that can be harvested by outside businesses to better protect users’ personal data from future abuse. Zuckerberg is scheduled to testify before Congress next week. What do we expect to hear from Zuckerberg?
MR. BENNETT: Well, for one thing, he can’t be defensive, right? We know that much. And he has to give account for the huge lapse that happened on his watch. And certainly Democrats, we know for sure, have a lot of questions about not just what happened with Cambridge Analytica, but him providing some assurances that it won’t happen again.
MR. COSTA: How bad has Facebook been hurt?
MS. TAUSCHE: Extremely bad. And I think you’ll see that in the Democrats’ line of questioning. I think that this is akin to where the banks were during the financial crisis.
MR. COSTA: Really?
MS. TAUSCHE: Facebook specifically, because you had questions then about whether those companies were too big to fail and too big to be managed. And you have companies like Facebook, Google even, who are working on satellites and hot air balloons to bring internet to Mongolia, but their core product is like Swiss cheese and they can’t effectively police what’s happening here in the United States.
MR. COSTA: Could they become utilities at some point, or something like that?
MS. TAUSCHE: Potentially. There was one comment by Adam Schiff, who of course is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, after a hearing where the general counsels were present in October. And he said: These companies need to focus less on profit and more on actually basically scrubbing themselves of any ill activity.
MR. SCHERER: I think the thing to pay attention to in the hearings next week is how much of this was policy at Facebook and how much of this was something that happened without them knowing? I think a lot of it will turn out to have been policy. For instance, scraping public profiles, this is stuff that Facebook knew was going on, allowing academic researchers to get enormous amounts of information. That was something that Facebook knew was going on.
You know, for years, you could create pages that would allow you access if someone voluntarily signed in – the Obama campaign did this in 2012 or ’(0)8, I don’t remember which – that allowed you – if you signed in you would get access not only to that person, but all their friends. That was Facebook policy. It wasn’t an accident. It was like a hacking that was done by these companies.
And what’s coming due for Mark Zuckerberg is his vision of a sort of open internet where everyone’s friends with everyone else and everyone shares all their information and it’s all personally identifiable really did have a dark, seedy underbelly. And he didn’t acknowledge it soon enough.
MS. GLASSER: Well, I think your point is so well taken about the fact that this was policy. And by the way, that it was a company and that they were happy to collect your money, and to collect the Obama campaign’s money and the Trump campaign’s money. Sheryl Sandberg, to me, gave this extraordinary statement this week where she said, well, I guess we were just too idealistic of a company. (Laughter.) And I thought, am I the only person hearing it this way? This strikes me as remarkably deaf to what’s actually going on here. This was a corporation acting to maximize its profits. And we were the product that they were selling, and access to us. So it’s not like people came and said, wow, we can find ways to use this data. They were selling access to our data and our information.
MR. SCHERER: And it goes way beyond Facebook. The entire business model of the internet is selling your information and giving you services in return. And people don’t understand how much information is collected on them, who’s being sold it, and how that works.
MR. BENNETT: That’s a great sort of cautionary takeaway. Any sort of online platform you use for free, be warned that you and your data are the product.