Zuckerberg did well during the hearings. He did what he had to do, represent his company to the best of his abilities. He did with an admirable patience, answering questions from senators that were mostly not amongst the best informed. “No, we don’t sell data to advertizers”.
The whole setup was less than ideal, with each senator having 5 minutes for questions, which did not allow for any depth. Some senators were asking questions, trying to impress their constituents (Question: “How many people were affected in my state”, Zuckerberg’s answer: “I don’t have it broken down by state, but my team can get back at you”. Some tried to be tough, and asked a question that couldn’t possibly be answered meaningfully in 5 minutes (Q: “Would you be willing to change your business model to improve privacy?”, Zuckerberg’s answer after some back and forth: “I don’t know what that means”). Best answer. Some questions were really good, like “What kind of company are you? A media company, a publishing company, a common carrier company?”, as this would affect the type of regulation that would be imposed. Answer: “I see ourselves as a technology company”.
I thought Zuckerberg generally gave clear answers, like yes and no, and voluntarily added some context where needed. And while Facebook’s past has been different, it was good to see Zuckerberg say that he isn’t opposed regulation.
Although the legislators clearly need more insight into the matter, it was very good to see there is concern for privacy. At the same time, it also uncovered a huge political dilemma. In the race for technology leadership against other countries, the United States needs to cherish its technology companies and their growth. But having done that, this created the situation we are currently in.
Anyway, those reflections are for another time. Let’s get practical. What should Facebook do?
Digital Ethics is at the core of the issue
Facebook should not see the whole issue as a public relations problem, a legal matter or a regulatory compliance question. The issue is one of trust. However, trust is an outcome. The matter to truly focus on is that of “digital ethics”. As Facebook’s impact is so big, it affects the societal fabric itself, the matter of doing the right thing with the technology and the data is not to be taken lightly. Zuckerberg mentioned there is a team focusing on artificial intelligence and ethics, but that is only a very small part of the ethical conversation. Facebook should put together a powerful ethics board, that looks at potential dilemmas in all of Facebook’s aspects, from AI to business model.
Change the culture of hacking and the focus on data collection
The current issues do not stand alone. Facebook has a longer history of pushing the borders. From the top of my head:
- Scraping address book information from older Android-operated phones (2018);
- An internal email leaked that justified any growth tactic (2018);
- Merging Whatsapp and Facebook data (2016);
- A privacy setting that didn’t work as it should (2018);
- The “year in review” controversy (2014);
- The research around timeline build-up and people’s moods (2014);
- undesirable machine learning based user segments such as around anti-Semitism (2017);
- Having customer profile attributes around sexual orientation, even before users did “come out” (2013);
- And recent accusations that Facebook is deliberately built to be addictive (2017).
There are two cultural issues that are at the core of all these issues, and as long as these two issues are not addressed, issues will continue to emerge.
The first issue is the “hacking culture”. In 2014 Facebook called it “move fast and break things”. The company stated it has moved away from that culture, but the style of thinking is deeply rooted in digital companies. Get it out, and then worry about how to get it right. This works in a growth phase, but it doesn’t work now Facebook operates on the societal scale level. Innovating on the societal scale requires a deep insight into the dualities that societies run on. Should you be interested in how dualities work, read a bit more in this blog.
Next to the hacking culture, I think there is another cultural issue. In the end, as much as Facebook is a social network, I think Facebook really sees itself as a data collection business. Somewhere down the line, the means of advertizers paying for the whole thing, and Facebook using all the advanced analytics it can to provide the best targeting options for advertizers, in order to achieve the goal of “giving people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Facebook’s mission) got confused and turned upside down. The means became the goal, and the goal became the means. No wonder if Wall Street expects you to keep growing at this pace. This needs to change too.
GDPR as a set of design principles, instead of a list of constraints
In business, regulation is often seen as an effort and a cost of business to comply, it complicates business because of their regional or industry-specific nature and ultimately just a set of constraints.
GDPR, the new European privacy laws that will come into effect next May, should not be seen as a collection of constraints, but as a set of design principles. To center the value proposition around.
Consider the following elements of GDPR as as sample:
- The right to access information
- The right on data portability
- The right to an explanation
- The right not to be automatically evaluated
- The right to object
- The right to be forgotten
- The right on compensation for damages
- The right on rectification
- The right to restrict processing
All of these examples are phrased not as business constraints, but as consumer rights. Not things that are not allowed, but things that are good for consumers.
And what about other companies?
It is easy to judge Facebook. But I recently learned about an American expression: “pioneers are usually recognized by the arrows in their back”. Facebook is pioneering the #digitalsociety, which means it is making all the mistakes first as well. As one senator said: “Facebook did grow considerable, but didn’t really mature”. That time is now. I’d rather see Facebook coming out of this stronger and wiser, than crippled and bitter because of hefty fines.
And not only Facebook can learn from this. All the things Facebook is facing today, the rest of the world will face tomorrow. Digital ethics did grow from a topic worthy some interesting fireside debate, to a top 3 priority for businesses rounding out their digital strategies, according to Gartner’s CIO Survey.
If digital ethics is a discipline not on your radar, start reading about it. Now. Here. And begin with this document: The CIO’s Guide to Digital Ethics: Leading Your Enterprise in a Digital Society