Why nobody complained when Obama bought Facebook user data


By Clarence Page



Remember the breathless speculation less than a year ago about whether Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg would run for president? That was then.

Oh, how the mighty Zuck’s image has fallen amid scandalous revelations about the social network’s allowing consultants for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign to gain access to the personal information on millions of us Facebook users.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told CNN Thursday that he doesn’t remember purchasing personal information from Facebook while working for the data firm Cambridge Analytica, where he one served as a vice president.

But Bannon did express a novel version of an often-used Trumpian deflection that I call “BBOF,” blame Barack Obama first.

“In 2008, it was Google and Facebook that went to Barack Obama and met him at San Francisco airport and told him all about the power of this personal data,” he said. Yet, “the great opposition party — media — never went after the Obama campaign, never went after the progressive left as they’ve been doing this for years. And in 2013, when I thought a data company might be important, all the sudden it becomes global news.”

Bannon’s view already was going viral on the political right. “Liberal media,” shouted a Fox News’ website headline, “didn’t think data mining was so bad when Obama’s campaign did it.”

“What’s genius for Obama is scandal when it comes to Trump,” said a headline on a column by conservative Ben Shapiro in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper.

And numerous other developers, including the makers of such games as FarmVille and the dating app Tinder, also used the same Facebook developer tool that Cambridge Analytica used.

However, as former Obama advisers point out, there are significant differences between the way Obama’s campaign mined data from Facebook, compared to the activities of which Cambridge is accused: They collected data with their own Obama campaign app, they complied with Facebook’s terms of service and, most important in my view, they received permission from users before using the data.

An estimated 1 million Obama supporters gave the campaign access to their Facebook data in order to spread the word about their campaign. Campaign officials say they kept the data secure and did not sell or give it to third parties, although there have been some allegations that Facebook released at least some of that data anyway, without permission.

Cambridge, by comparison, has been accused of violating Facebook rules. The firm has suspended CEO Alexander Nix, pending an investigation.

Nix, you may recall, unintentionally added juice to this story by getting caught in an undercover sting video conducted against Cambridge Analytica by Britain’s Channel 4. Viewers around the world saw Nix claim credit for Trump’s election and appear to offer to entrap the client’s political rivals with secret videotapes and sex workers.

Yet Facebook has taken heat from Trump’s critics, too. They have accused the company of contributing to Trump’s victory by failing to rein in fake news and Russian propaganda. The latest scandal has brought new calls for Zuckerberg to testify before Congress and clarify how customer data is being used and possibly misused.

On Wednesday, after remaining conspicuously silent since Friday night, Zuckerberg promised to restrict third-party access to Facebook data in an effort to win back user trust. “We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to serve you,” he wrote on Facebook.

Well said, but we’ve heard such earnest mea culpas from Zuckerberg before. Fast Company has compiled a list of almost a dozen other apologies Zuck has issued since 2003. “Like any habitual sinner,” opines Politico’s media columnist Jack Shafer, “he sins, seeks forgiveness in confession, and then with that naughty boy expression pasted on his face, he goes forth and sins again.”

Will he get away with it again? We’ve seen this dance before. Everybody hates Zuckerberg, yet we also love what his company has brought to us. Like a lot of tech wizards or major corporate CEOs, he likes to push the limits and worry about apologies later.

Perhaps this time, we the public will push back hard enough to rein in Facebook’s seductive power with appropriate regulations, beginning with the requirement that they get our permission before collecting and sharing our data with third parties.

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By Clarence Page

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

Clarence Page is a member of the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board. Readers may send him email at cpage@chicagotribune.com.