The founder of Facebook, who has apologized for privacy breaches throughout much of his company's existence, is back at it, on a much larger stage than ever before.
The proximate cause is the Cambridge Analytica controversy. In violation of Facebook's rules, the Trump-linked political consultancy schemed to get access to the data of 87 million users. This has made Facebook a scapegoat for President Donald Trump's victory on par with the Russians and James Comey (at least before the FBI director got fired and became a Trump adversary).
In 2012, President Barack Obama's re-election campaign did a less underhanded version of the same thing as Cambridge. The great chronicler of the Obama digital operation, Sasha Issenberg, wrote of how its "'targeted sharing' protocols mined an Obama backer's Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade." No scandal ensued — rather, the Obama team was hailed as geniuses who changed campaigning forever.
It's not Zuckerberg's fault that he has suddenly been deemed on the wrong side of history, but the Cambridge Analytica blowup is bringing a useful spotlight on the most sanctimoniously self-regarding large company in America. Facebook can't bear to admit that it has garnered the largest collection of data known to man to sell ads against and line the pockets of its founder and investors.
The problem isn't that Mark Zuckerberg is a businessman, and an exceptionally gifted one, but that he pretends to have stumbled out of the lyrics of John Lennon's song "Imagine." To listen to him, Facebook is all about connectivity and openness — he just happens to have made roughly $63 billion as the T-shirt-wearing champion of "the global community," whatever that means.
It's this pose that makes him and other Facebook officials sound so shifty. In a rocky interview with Savannah Guthrie of the "Today" show last week, Sheryl Sandberg was asked what product Facebook sells. "We're selling the opportunity to connect with people," she said, before catching herself, "but it's not for sale."
Something or other must be for sale, or Facebook is the first company to rocket to the top ranks of corporate America based on having no product or profit motive. Guthrie, persisting, stated that Facebook sweeps up data for the use of advertisers. Sandberg objected: "We are not sweeping data. People are inputting data."
Uh, yeah. That's the genius of it. In a reported exchange with a friend while he was a student at Harvard, Zuckerberg boasted of having data on thousands of students because "people just submitted it."
Zuckerberg has now managed the same trick on a global scale. On the one hand, Facebook has indeed made efforts to protect the data of its users, knowing that it can't risk a fundamental breach of trust. On the other, Zuckerberg has repeatedly said he's sorry for offenses against his users' privacy because his business model contradicts his self-righteous public posture.
The company is deeply committed to that posture. In the "Today" interview, Sandberg made a confession as humble brag: "We were very idealistic and not rigorous enough." In his prepared testimony before a House committee, Zuckerberg declared: "Facebook is an idealistic and optimistic company. For most of our existence, we focused on all the good that connecting people can bring."
It's possible to imagine something like Facebook run as a nonprofit service for the global commons. That's not what Zuckerberg chose to do to. To his credit, he created a compelling — nay, for some people, addicting — product and made a killing for the ages.
Perhaps the public pressure will force the social network to give its customers even more control over the use of their data. At a minimum, it will have achieved something if it gets Facebook to give up the saccharine one-world rhetoric about its mission and admit the bottom line is as important to it as any other profit-making company.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: [email protected]
(c) 2018 by King Features Syndicate