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Facebook — Congressional Bluster or the Real Deal?

Zuckerberg prepares for congressional testimony about Facebook's handling of user data.

Robin Smith · Apr. 9, 2018

It’s most probable that the average person would reject the offer to provide thousands of businesses, organizations or interests with minute-by-minute feedback on purchases, personal interests and habits, daily movement, civic engagement, or even details about your travel, family, health and voting. Yet those who engage in social media, as revealed by the recent data woes of Facebook, are consenting to just that.

Consumers enjoy using Facebook to connect with friends and family, or the ease of entering a search item into Google’s platform to easily access information, but those actions simultaneously trigger a cascade of activity to create a digital profile of you and your interests. Your browsing history, the time you spend on certain website pages and the type of content accessed are very valuable data points for retailers and political organizations in efforts to win spending and your votes.

Simply put, you are the product being sought by marketers to add to their data sets for the purpose of any number of transactions and sales.

This week, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is set to appear before Congress. Americans have been made aware that an estimated 87 million users have had their personal data “scraped,” or used without permission and outside the terms of use of Facebook’s user agreement. And Facebook acknowledged last week that it’s likely most of its two billion worldwide users have had data collected by “malicious actors.”

This latest flap isn’t the first time the social media giant has been less than careful about the private information of its users, and it’s not the first time it’s been disciplined for its failures to live up to its user agreements. In 2011, an eight-count complaint was issued by the Federal Trade Commission against the social media behemoth. The charges, as described on the FTC website, claim that Facebook “deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.” In response to the FTC claims that Facebook violated federal law, a settlement was reached that the social media company would take “several steps to make sure it lives up to its promises in the future” that would include “giving consumers clear and prominent notice and obtaining consumers’ express consent before their information is shared beyond the privacy settings they have established.”

Of course, in 2012, when Barack Obama’s political machine, Organizing for Action, was using personal data harvested from Facebook users to micro-target voters with messages that were personal and matched their interests, the headlines trumpeted the genius of the plan. Not only did the information captured and utilized by Obama’s data-savvy campaign relate to those who were personally interested in his re-election, but personal data about their friends was obtained and used as well.

Tomorrow, when Zuckerberg faces congressional questions, will Americans see their representative body of government fight for their privacy, or will lawmakers spout partisan talking points to protect their own? Will Facebook, as is being predicted, face record fines that could exceed $1 billion for violating the terms of the 2011 consent decree to address misuse of data?

It’s an election year and it’s pretty safe to say the soaring speeches of indignation during Tuesday’s hearing will consume most of the allotted time.

There’s already been an early indication that the largest social media platform company in the world would rather keep its lengthy user agreements written by a slew of attorneys that force a Facebook user to either purchase some type of subscription service to opt out of the data sweeping or know how to manipulate settings to circumvent the existing structure. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, offered in an NBC interview last week, “We have different forms of opt-out. … We don’t have an opt-out at the highest level. That would be a paid product.”

Maddening. Your data is not yours. Facebook’s assumption is that once a consumer engages, users abandon all rights to their personal information that may be linked to an Internet address and the content posted in messages that are believed to be private.

The issue of our day is actually about the democratization of our data. Who owns it? How should interested parties access our personal data? Should we charge those seeking our data rather than pay to have our privacy protected?

Remain focused on the true issue involved in this Facebook regulatory situation. Consumers in a surveillance economy need to be protected, not merely exist as the product.

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