Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, apologized for the Cambridge Analytica scandal with ads in multiple U.S. and British newspapers, and in an interview with CNN, saying the social media platform does not deserve to hold personal information if it cannot protect it.
The ads said a quiz app built by a Cambridge University researcher leaked Facebook data of millions of people four years ago. “This was a breach of trust, and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time. We’re now taking steps to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” the ads said. During his interview with CNN, Mark Zuckerberg suggested the question was not whether Facebook should be regulated so much as how best to do it.
Facebook’s privacy practices have come under fire after Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm affiliated with President Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, obtained data inappropriately. The firm is alleged to have created psychological profiles to influence how people vote or even think about politics and society through micro-targeting of thousands (if not millions) of Facebook subscribers.
According to data from the FEC, the Trump campaign paid Cambridge Analytica nearly $6 million for services during the 2016 election cycle. Seventeen other Republican political organizations, including Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign and a super PAC headed by incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton, also paid the firm a combined $16 million for services that included research and micro-targeting of voters.
As social media becomes part of life and often an extension of our thoughts, it is time to question whether it is a tool to enhance or restrict our rights. Furthermore, now our concerns must go beyond governmental acts and extend to the actions of private parties who may use social networks for a profit or to influence us by exploiting our personal information.
Social networks implicate our right to free speech but also our right to privacy. To be clear, most rights are not absolute, and neither the right to free speech nor the right to privacy is an absolute right. The right to free speech means that we are allowed to express ourselves without interference or constraint by the government, and that the government can limit both the content of speech and the ability to engage in speech only when there is “substantial justification.”
Likewise, our right to privacy is not absolute, and governments can intrude into our right to privacy to protect society. However, governments generally have had to justify their intrusions in our privacy to achieve the higher goal of protecting society and have had to make use of legally mandated due process safeguards, such as obtaining a wiretap warrant to listen to our private conversations. This is no longer the case with social networks being given direct access to our information and even our most intimate thoughts, which they may then exploit for their own benefit or simply lose track—as in the Cambridge Analytica example.
We might think that social networks allow us to express ourselves in ways that we could not before, and to do it anonymously. But how much of what we post on social networks is private? How much of our information is used for profit? How much control do we even have over our data on social networks? Will social networks provide greater freedom for people to express ourselves and our thoughts, or will they turn out to be a weapon that allows our governments and even private agents to control and monitor our communications? More importantly, how much of what we think is determined by what’s posted on social media? How much are we being influenced by our online social networks?
These are all questions that as a society we must consider to be able to maintain our individual freewill. The alternative would result if a society where we become puppets of our social media accounts.