Editorial


Will you ever trust Facebook again?

Facebook is losing friends fast.

Its favorability rating — how well people like the social media giant — has plunged 28 percentage points in the last five months, according to a new Axios-commissioned poll.

The Federal Trade Commission confirmed Monday that it is investigating whether Facebook is living up to an earlier agreement to keep some user information private.

Cook County is piling on too. The county is suing Facebook and the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica — founded by Donald Trump supporters — for allegedly violating a state fraud law. The suit accuses Cambridge of using improperly gained Facebook data to influence voter behavior.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has profusely apologized for the Cambridge scandal. He’s even hinted at inviting government regulation.

No wonder Zuckerberg is floundering. His company and its enormous reach are products of Facebook’s inventiveness and its users’ trust. Until now this enterprise hasn’t, though, had to think much about important values: character, integrity, ethics. So as millions of us in recent days have squawked about Facebook’s use of the data we provide, many of those inside the company must be surprised to learn that users feel betrayed.

This episode is forcing Facebook to do what it hasn’t done before: admit that those users, perhaps naively, see it not as a purveyor but as a guardian.

Is the Facebook face-plant a blip or a trend? That is, will distressed users dial back or delete their accounts? That depends on whether Facebook users now begin to think of the site as Big Brother, not Big Friend. We imagine that millions of Facebook users are only vaguely aware of how the “free” service makes money — by selling ads and trading in users’ personal information. Many are asking: What am I sharing with Facebook and what do I really want to share?

The digerati long have realized that whatever they post on Facebook or anywhere else, whatever they email or text, exits their sphere of control. Those keyboard strikes enter a shadowy domain where it can be mined by hackers, sold by scammers, exhumed by employers, entered as evidence by prosecutors. Beware, everyone on the internet: Free isn’t usually free. And privacy as all of us imagined it is in shreds.

Not all is lost, though. Not yet, anyway. Digital systems can be better designed not only to satisfy users and advertisers, but also to ensure ethical use of huge troves of data gathered on millions if not billions of people. Not enough of that is happening. ” … Technical systems are today being built with minimal concern for (ethical) compliance and a total disregard for the downstream consequences of decades of identifiable data being collected on the babies being born into the most complicated information ecology that has ever existed,” writes University of Oregon associate philosophy professor Colin Koopman in The New York Times.

There’s a lesson here, and a warning, not only for Facebook, but the next Facebook, and other web entrepreneurs.

This crisis is still gaining momentum. Lawmakers in Washington and elsewhere clamor for more transparency and greater privacy protections. The European Union is launching a sweeping new data privacy law in May.

Here’s an even bigger threat:

Customers aren’t guaranteed forever. Many Facebook users are now learning, perhaps for the first time, how they can limit the platform’s ability to collect their personal information, how they can curb the ads that track them wherever they go. How they can, heaven forbid, delete their accounts and return to a world without Facebook — that is, as it was before 2004.

Yes, that extreme is fanciful. What’s not fanciful is that users of Facebook and similar sites will be asking about those three suddenly relevant values: character, integrity, ethics.

In Slate, former hedge fund analyst Cathy O’Neil writes: “The more processes we automate, the more obvious it will become that algorithms are not inherently fair and objective, and that they need human intervention. At that point the ethics of building algorithms will be taught alongside statistics and computer programming classes.”

Sounds like that point is now. Facebook and its peers either embrace ethics and transparency or risk digital shunning.

The Associated Press made this Chicago Tribune Editorial available.

Will you ever trust Facebook again?