Written by Olivia Woodford-Berry, '19
Edited by Hannah Ngo, '21
Facebook is an increasingly integral part of how individuals interact with each other, from shopping in Facebook’s market-place to private messaging, and privacy problems created by this platform pose a threat to individual privacy and political stability. The Cambridge Analytical scandal represents an ethical challenge rooted in Facebook’s privacy protection policies.
In this case, the integrity and security of Facebook was called into question after a whistle-blower revealed that a British data firm, Cambridge Analytica, purchased improperly collected data on 50 million Facebook users to create political profiles without the users’ knowledge or informed consent. Users who believed they were taking a Facebook quiz were redirected to a Qualtrics questionnaire that did not reveal it was collecting personal information: “The first step for those filling out the questionnaire was to grant access to their Facebook profiles. Once they did, an app then harvested their data and that of their friends.”  Although Facebook claims the researcher responsible for selling the data to Cambridge Analytica, Aleksandr Kogan, was the problem, Kogan argues that Facebook has created a situation that makes users extremely vulnerable to this sort of privacy breach.  This violation of data security represents a prominent ethical dilemma since, according to the United Nations, the right to privacy online is a human right
Overall, Facebook’s decision to serve as a social platform as opposed to content mediators who regulate parties using their services has created an ethical dilemma surrounding who should defend user privacy and how. Specifically, the situation highlights two ethical problems for Facebook and its users: that users fear their data is not adequately protected and that Facebook does not screen for potential bad actors who use their services. While Facebook has taken steps to improve both their image and data security, it is in the best interest of the users and the company to shift away from an advertisement-based business model to protect users’ right to privacy and prevent future scandals in the future.
After a whistle-blower exposed this breech, Facebook’s immediate response was to apologize for the incident and take steps to improve security on the site. When Zuckerberg testified before the Senate on privacy, data mining, regulations and Cambridge Analytica, he claimed that while it was a mistake not to ban Cambridge Analytica in 2015, Facebook does not foresee this issue continuing.  In attempt both to improve public relations and to avoid future problems, Facebook reduced app access to data, ended some types of targeted advertising, and disclosed more information on advertisers to the public.  More recently, Facebook has proposed some larger scale changes to address the root of their data security problems. Near the one-year anniversary of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg stated he plans to shift Facebook away from public posting and to focus on private, encrypted messaging. 
Although Facebook has taken steps to protect user data, these steps are not sufficient to fully address the challenge of protecting users’ rights to privacy. Given social media’s growing influence, foreign powers and corporations with unethical motives will continue to use the platform to exploit the more than one billion Facebook users on the platform. For example, in 2016 Russian agents used Facebook and Instagram to weaponize misinformation and political polarization in the United States’ presidential election.  Facebook has been slow to respond to these problems, and lawmakers have proven themselves unprepared to deal with such issues, with some failing even to demonstrate basic technological literacy. For these reasons, American politics and future elections are still at risk of interference from foreign powers via manipulative social media campaigns. Still, perhaps even more concerning than the threat of bad actors is the threat that Facebook’s own business practices pose to data security. Only months after the Cambridge Analytica case, reports revealed that Facebook willingly gave companies like Netflix, Spotify, and Amazon exemptions from standard privacy policies, allowing them access to intrusive user information, including names of friends and private messages.  Thus, it is clear that the steps that Facebook has taken to improve data privacy are superficial and do not fully address the root of the problem.
Even if one were willing to assume that the increased regulation and the strengthened security are enough to protect users from abuse by other parties, Facebook’s own business model will continue to incentivize the collection and exploitation of private user data for the company’s own benefit. Facebook’s business model depends on “… selling advertising that targets individual users on the basis of information they post, searches they conduct, and so on. Accordingly, [Facebook] has invested… huge resources in what effectively amounts to the never-ending surveillance of their users.”  To grow the company with the given model, Facebook must convince advertisers that the data they collect from users makes them better equipped to place advertisements effectively than any other competitor. Such incentives push Facebook to continuously find ways to extract more data, and more relevant data, from their users. Thus, Facebook’s current incentive system is likely to result in violations of users’ rights to privacy through over surveilling. Such violations will not only harm users but will also decrease trust in the platform, ultimately hurting the economic interests of the company.
In order to address or even prevent potential violations of user privacy and critical damage to the company’s reputation, a subscription-based model may be a promising option for Facebook. Creating a paid version of Facebook in addition to a free version will lessen the incentives to collect and monetize user data without completely “pricing out” low income users. In this way, limiting advertisements will make data harvesting less important for monetary growth and protect consumers’ right to privacy online. Although many users expect social media to be free, in light of this scandal and the very public congressional hearing there is increasing public concern regarding data privacy. Indeed, many people have considered leaving the platform altogether due to privacy concerns.  Thus, creating a subscription-based, ad-free or ad-light version of Facebook will allow privacy-minded users to continue using the service. In addition, companies like Netflix and Spotify have illustrated that if the platform is engaging, ad-free, and easy to use, users will be willing to pay for the streamlined service.
Having free and subscription options would best allow Facebook to capture both those unwilling to pay for social media and those concerned about data security while better protecting both the company’s image and user privacy. In conclusion, although Facebook is moving towards private messaging and creating more secure, encrypted services, additional steps are needed to prevent a breach similar to the one seen with Cambridge Analytica. Creating paid alternatives to free Facebook profiles represents a way to address the root of Facebook’s data privacy problems and prevent future data breaches in the future.
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