Facebook is facing an existential crisis and moral reckoning.
Last week, Mark ZuckerbergMark ZuckerbergEx-Facebook data scientist to testify before British lawmakers A defense for Facebook and global free speech Senate Democrat calls on Facebook to preserve documents related to whistleblower testimony MORE, Facebook’s chief executive, finally broke his deafening silence to apologize for the stunning misuse of 50 million Americans’ personal data by Cambridge Analytica to sow chaos online and “fight a culture war in America.”
In the wake of these reports, Facebook has hemorrhaged investors and advertisers, losing more market value in several days than Uber’s entire estimated worth.
Even more importantly, it has lost Americans’ confidence that Facebook is not merely an engine of corporate surveillance more interested in turning a quick advertising buck than protecting our privacy and democracy.
This latest crisis of public confidence has been years in the making.
In 2010, Facebook responded to widespread concerns about its opaque data policies by promising to make its privacy settings easier, and promised consumers that “[w]e don’t share your information with advertisers. Our targeting is anonymous. We don’t identify or share names. Period.”
This was, of course, not true. Facebook did sell Americans' personal data to advertisers without consent.
Later that year, another report confirmed that Facebook shared the data of tens of millions users—including friends of friends and “people who set their profiles to Facebook’s strictest privacy settings”—despite making assurances that it would fix this problem through tighter control over data used by third-party apps.
And in 2011, Facebook settled charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that it “deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook.”
Even though this settlement barred Facebook from misrepresenting consumers’ privacy or security on Facebook, you guessed it: this was yet another broken promise.
Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School attributes Facebook’s pattern of recidivism and unwillingness to address systemic abuse on its platform to its core business model as a surveillance machine: “They get as much data as they can, and they promise advertisers that they’re able to manipulate us, and that is at the core.”
But this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite its pledge to work with Congress and security researchers to investigate election interference, Facebook has instead attempted to elude congressional oversight of this matter while preventing researchers from analyzing the extent of misinformation and propaganda on Facebook.
Facebook funneling Americans’ access to quality journalism and trustworthy sources of information threatens the very existence of the free and diverse press, a lynchpin of our constitutional democracy that is key to rooting out corruption and holding the government and powerful corporations accountable.
Internationally, human rights experts say that Facebook has played a “determining role” in ethnic violence in Myanmar, similar to the role of extremist radio in enabling unimaginable violence and death in Rwanda.
Facebook has also been outright blocked in other countries due to its role in spreading and amplifying hate speech.
Taken together, this string of broken promises and patterns of abuse illustrate why we need more than empty assurances from Facebook.
Americans expect more from Facebook than the same empty promises from before.
And they expect more from Congress than non-public briefings conducted by Facebook’s lobbyists and mid-level staff.
That’s why Mark Zuckerberg must appear before Congress to be held to account for Facebook’s moral failure.
Cicilline represents Rhode Island’s 1st District and is ranking member of the Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee.