Facebook’s Dereliction of Duty

Almost like a tribal drumbeat, there is now a predictable rhythm to how often we hear about Facebook’s many challenges. Every week or so, the media glare brings out more corporate secrets. But while they are titillating and make for great reading, the gripes of the media —who have their own axe to grind with Facebook for what it did to their business — often distract from Facebook’s real failure: dereliction of duty.

At some point, like many people, I became okay with the idea that Facebook will suck in more and more of our data until we are living in a perpetual motion machine of hyper-personalized advertising. But this acceptance was premised on the assumed agreement that, even as it treated us like the passive citizens in Wall-E, Facebook would be able to keep its platform clean. It would protect its treasure — our personal information — with the vigilance of a medieval emperor. The borders of its data empire would be guarded with a ferocity befitting Genghis Khan.

The company has clearly failed to hold up its side of this bargain.

It has been sloppy, slow, and, frankly, careless. It has failed to protect data that nearly 2 billion people have entrusted them with. The Economist once declared data to be the new oil. If so, then Facebook’s oil spills have been getting bigger and bigger. The short list of crimes against its own community includes the Cambridge Analytica scandal, growing incidents of passwords left unprotected, the preferential sharing of information, and the unfettered spread of fake news spam.

To my mind, these are all derelictions of duty — and that is what should stoke the fires of our anger. It is not too much to expect that Zuckerberg and his acolytes to balance their pursuit of growth and engagement with care and diligence on behalf of its citizens.

The impunity with which Facebook lies about its own actions clearly demonstrates a lack of self-reflection about their shortcomings. I was reading the much-shared story by Wired editors Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein, and I was struck by how the company’s rank and file seemed to be oblivious to problems that are plain as day to the rest of us. Unfortunately, nothing is going to change. The Wired feature was a very well reported article, but its main service was to reinforce what we already know.

Mark Zuckerberg’s loyalty is to Zuckerberg. There are no friends, no allies. Whether you are Chris Cox, the Instagram founders, or the WhatsApp team, you are there to play a role. There are no princes, only King Zuck. He rules over a platform that exists for no purpose other than to perpetuate itself. All the adjacent players — app developers, gaming companies, music streamers and news media — are just pawns to be used up.

In a profile for Time 100, former Facebook president Sean Parker wrote that Zuck uses “goodness” as a lens to look at the world of Facebook. These days, it seems more like “Goodness me!” Recently, NBC News, after getting access to a 4,000-document dump, reported on the inner workings of Facebook while it was climbing its way to the top. Reading the story, it was obvious that, when it came to misusing personal information and abusing the trust of its users, the company was callous at best and predatory at worst.

For many years, I have questioned and probed Facebook’s motivations, even as it enjoyed uncritical attention lavished on it by establishment media outlets. Talking to developers a decade or so ago, you could see a predatory company doing predatory things. That would have been the time to effectively hold Facebook accountable. Now may be too late. If you think that things will change in the months — or even years — to come, then you are childish.

When examining Facebook’s activity today, we must ask ourselves: Are these actions actually good for the billions who provide Facebook the power it wields? The company wants to implement end-to-end encryption on its unified communication and messaging platform. This allows the company to absolve itself of any responsibility of what happens inside of these networks. I am yet to read a report or a survey that shows that “the people” are asking for this solution. It is a perfect example of Facebook making decisions that are good for Facebook and not necessarily for the masses that actually form its base.

I worry that King Zuck is increasingly surrounded by those who are focused on short-term expediency, with little concern for the damage their decisions may do to the world at large. There are a growing number of former political operatives who have become part of the company’s internal cacophony. Their skills and interests lie in managing the news cycle, not thinking about the future. Sadly, if — as the Wired story details —someone as calm and devoted as Chris Cox couldn’t make Zuck see the implication of the encryption actions, then there can hardly be any hope.

As this continues to unravel, it is critical that we not lose sight of what’s important. Facebook’s negative impact on media, for example, is easy to bemoan, but it is ultimately of little consequence. Let’s forget about advertising-based surveillance capitalism. Facebook’s betrayal of its users’ trust and its dereliction of its duty to manage, safeguard, and protect its platform — that’s what matters.

This first appeared on my April 21, 2019, weekly newsletter. If you like to get this delivered to your inbox, just sign-up here, and I will take care of the rest.

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

A letter from Om

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