Ethics & Religion
January 24, 2019
Consumers Need Control Over Digital Lives
By Mike McManus
Facebook is extraordinarily successful. It has 1.7 billion members -
about a quarter of the entire world. It's the earth's most influential
Yet there is increasing evidence that Facebook's success has led to
"catastrophe unfolding" according to Roger McNamee, a close friend of
its founder, Mark Zuckerberg.
In a long article in the current TIME magazine, McNamee charges that
Facebook created an illusion that "most people the user knows believe
the same things. Showing users only posts they agree with was good for
Facebook's bottom line."
However, "research showed it also increased polarization and...harmed
democracy." Before long, "Facebook was spying on everyone, including
people who do not use Facebook. In fact, Facebook sometimes traded the
data to get better business deals."
For example, Facebook created "growth hacking" in which users are a
metric, not people. "Every action a user took gave Facebook a better
understanding of that user - and of that user's friends...Any advertiser
could buy access...The Russians took full advantage."
Zuckerberg "seemed to listen to criticism without changing behavior."
Success has warped his perception of reality. It would never occur to
him to listen to critics...much less reconsider the way they do
"As a result, when confronted with evidence that disinformation and fake
news had spread over Facebook and may have influenced a British
referendum or an election in the U.S. - Facebook followed a playbook it
had run since its founding - deny, delay, deflect, dissemble," argued
"Facebook only came clean when forced to, and revealed as little
information as possible. Then it went to Plan B: apologize and promise
to do better."
One would think that "Facebook's users would be outraged by the way the
platform has been used to undermine democracy, human rights, privacy,
public health and innovation." However. 1.5 billion people use Facebook
daily to stay In touch with distant relatives and friends. Few are
"Democracy depends on shared facts and values. It depends on
deliberation and the rule of law. It depends on having a free press,"
McNamee argues. "Facebook (along with Google and Twitter) has undercut
the free press from two directions: it has eroded the economics of
journalism and then overwhelmed it with disinformation."
"Facebook's algorithms promote extreme messages over neutral ones, which
can elevate disinformation over information, conspiracy theories over
What's alarming is that Facebook's "threat to democracy is real...Only
fundamental changes to business models can reduce the risk to
Facebook has brought service to poor people in 60 countries, but at the
cost of massive social disruption. "There need to be versions of
Facebook New Feed that are free of manipulation. Users need to own their
data and have absolute control over how it gets used. Users have a right
to know the name of every organization and person who has their data."
Facebook, Google and Amazon are extraordinarily successful. "However,
they are profitable because they do not pay for the damage they cause."
McNamee argues. He believes "The economy would benefit from breaking
them up. A first step would be to prevent acquisitions."
He also proposes government subsidies such as "research funding, capital
for startups, and tax breaks." Finally, McNamee argues that children
need protection. "A growing percentage of children prefer the
hyper-stimulation of virtual experiences to the real world. Programs
like Instagram empowers bullies. Texting has replace conversation for
What can be done? First, there should be "limits on the ages at which
children may use screen-like smartphones." Second, phones and computers
should be barred from classrooms.
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, argues "It's time for action on privacy. We all
deserve control over our digital lives." How can that be achieved? He
asks Congress "to pass comprehensive federal privacy legislation - a
landmark package of reforms that protect and empower the consumer."
He suggests four principles: "First, the right to have personal data
minimized. Companies should challenge themselves to strip identifying
information from customer data or avoid collecting it in the first
"Second, the right to knowledge - to know what data is being collected
and why. Third, the right to access. (Companies should make it easy for
you to access, connect and delete most personal data.) And fourth, the
right to data security without which trust is impossible."
There are two goals of meaningful comprehensive federal privacy
legislation: Consumers should be in control of their data; and law
"should shine a light on actors trafficking in our data behind the
Before legislation is passed, the Federal Trade Commission should
establish a data-broker clearinghouse requiring all data brokers to
register, enabling consumers to delete their data on demand.
Change is essential.
Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, President of Marriage Savers and
a syndicated columnist. To read past columns, go to
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