In early 2016, well after it learned about the massive scale violations by Cambridge Analytica of its user data, Facebook sanctioned an internal study about its approach to data and privacy. Led by its Deputy Chief Privacy Officer, the company convened a series of off-the-record workshops with 175 privacy and data professionals around the world.
Most of us were already well known for our concerns about Facebook’s approach to exploiting its vast troves of user data, but agreed to participate with the hope that we might help the company start acting more responsibly. The discussions were candid and hard hitting. We focused on the ethical and business challenges Facebook would face if were unable to reform itself. Many of us left encouraged.
Against the recommendations of many of my colleagues, I publicly commended Facebook for such a thoughtful report and highlighted its findings about embracing greater transparency and control of data by users. Many of the ideas centered around new concepts of empowering users with their data and giving them agency over how and when it was used. A number of companies (including my own) were working on tools and business models that made that vision increasingly possible, and it was exciting to see such a decentralized, user-centric model articulated by Facebook.
I knew the findings would be hard for Facebook to implement in the short term, but viewed the report as being an important statement of where the company could go. Facebook was actually well positioned to take advantage of a new collaborative relationship with its users around data. I also sensed that the report represented an emerging, mostly European viewpoint inside the company, and wanted to do all I could to further their cause.
I went so far as to challenge Mark Zuckerberg directly:
“I hope Mark Zuckerberg reads it and internalizes its many good recommendations, especially given the powerful catalyzing role Facebook could play to empower people with data. It’s not just the right thing to do, it would be great for the company’s long-term business (oh, and for that pesky regulatory problem).”
I knew from my interactions at Facebook, including with board members and senior product and policy leaders, that without Zuckerberg’s full support, ideas so core to Facebook’s future would be dead on arrival.
Within a few months, it became clear that the report had indeed missed its mark. Follow up initiatives were either cancelled or redefined so narrowly that no one wanted to participate. People I reached out to at Facebook who should have known about the report said it hadn’t even registered on their radar. When I shared the specifics they simply responded “that does not reflect Mark’s thinking.”
At such a critical moment in the company’s future, I would strongly encourage the company to revisit its own recommendations. While centralized systems and tightly controlled companies can be effective in many contexts, Facebook has simply become too intertwined with how we live our lives to continue to operate that way.