Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg wants to be ‘clear’, but he’s reluctant to do it in person

Too much quibbling over definitions in the tech giant’s response to major data scandal

Has anyone seen  this man? Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

Has anyone seen this man? Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

 

Any minute now, the negative attention on Facebook in the wake of the data harvesting revelations should pile high enough to trigger that most earnest of public relations commodities: a post on the Facebook page of Mark Zuckerberg.

By now, these posts can be relied upon to follow an ultra-careful, incredibly successful format. They are written in the short, deadening sentences suggestive of common sense. They include a smidgen of vague contritition and the promise to do better. They seem entirely reasonable. But their chief attribute is the skill with which the business of Facebook is distilled into the simplest and most innocuous of terms. There is no obfuscation through deliberate complexity – like the best spin, the language used trumpets its own clarity.

Questions

The Facebook chief executive is almost as fond of the phrase “I want to be clear” as Theresa May is of “let me be clear”. And yet the social media giant finds itself accused of having misled a UK House of Commons committee that had pressed it on how companies accessed user data and if information had been taken without users’ consent: Damian Collins, the MP who chairs this committee, claims Facebook “deliberately avoided answering straight questions” through the time-honoured manner of sending uninformed lieutenants.

His headline-making call upon Zuckerberg to “stop hiding behind his Facebook page” has gained traction, in part because a similar frustration has been building across the Atlantic. In November, when a US Senate judiciary committee held hearings into Russian interference in the presidential election, it had to suffice with visits from the most senior lawyers of Facebook, Google and Twitter, rather than, as one senator put it, “the top people who are actually making the decisions”.

Let’s have a closer look at some of Facebook’s recent decision-making. On Friday night, in a post with the byline of its deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal, it announced that it was suspending Cambridge Analytica, a political data analytics company that worked for Donald Trump’s election team and the winning Brexit campaign.

This was Facebook getting its spoke in ahead of the publication of whistleblower-assisted investigations by the Observer and New York Times concerning the mining of tens of millions of Facebook profile data for political ends. It wasn’t terribly keen on these reports: it “ downplayed” the story put to it by the New York Times and told the Observer it was making “false and defamatory” allegations.

Disinformation

This is one of those times when a chilling phenomenon – a targeted disinformation “war” – has its roots in the absurd. At the heart of this scandal lies an app called “thisisyourdigitallife”, which asked users to answer questions to build a pyschological profile. Facebook says its creator, an academic called Dr Aleksandr Kogan (who once went by the name Dr Spectre), “lied” to Facebook in 2014 by passing that data along to a company called SCL and its affiliate, Cambridge Analytica, without informing users. While some 270,000 people downloaded the app, the data of their friends on the platform was also collected (which was possible then, but not now). In total, some 50 million US-based profiles ended up in the data pool.

None of this should have happened. But when Facebook says its policies have been “violated”, it is not referring to the original data extraction, but its passing to a third party. The 270,000 users “gave their consent” to Kogan, it says, while their friends had “their privacy settings set to allow” their “more limited information” being accessed. Never mind that these tens of millions couldn’t have known who or what was behind an app that they had not downloaded themselves and most likely were not aware their “friends” had used.

Facebook executives who aren’t Mark Zuckerberg have been engaged in some weapons-grade splitting of hairs. Facebook doesn’t like the phrase “data breach”, you see. To call it a data breach is “completely false”, Grewal’s updated post states, because “people knowingly provided their information, no systems were infiltrated, and no passwords or sensitive pieces of information were stolen or hacked”.

Violation

Okay. But the distinction Facebook draws between a violation and a data breach is hardly meaningful to its users, as vice-president Andrew Bosworth, appeared to concede later on Twitter. No trust, no sharing, no users.

Imploring Zuckerberg to come out to play at inquiries and hearings is itself a tactic, of course – calling on someone to “stop hiding” is a solid way to make them look secretive and undemocratic. (In Facebook’s case, this has not been hard.)

It also reminds the world just how much elected representatives are on the back foot when it comes to the unregulated power of the tech giants. They can be said to have kept themselves that way, too – the soft-touch provisions of the Data Protection Bill 2018, for example, do little to counteract the impression that Ireland is an outpost of Silicon Valley.

What is worse than a data breach? A tactical abdication of responsibility. It is all very well for Facebook to say it will “take legal action if necessary” against Kogan and his associates. The question now is, who will, or can, take legal action against Facebook.