Even as it issues full-page apologies in print newspapers promising ritualistically “to do better,” Facebook and its allies have minimized the importance of the seismic revelation that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked on behalf of the Trump campaign in 2016, had gained access to the private information of about 50 million Facebook users.
Some executives have pointed out that the mechanism that until a few years ago allowed a researcher with 270,000 app downloads to have access to 50 million profiles wasn’t exactly a secret, and, besides, Facebook users nominally agreed to the sharing of these profiles so that apps would perform better. The company’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, took to Twitter to complain that Facebook and other “platforms” were being held to a double standard concerning the profiles, since they may well “have been criticized as monopolists for locking them down.”
Others poured cold water on the idea that Cambridge Analytica was able to use these profiles as grist for its research on swaying voters by cracking the code of human intention. Marc Andreessen, the venture capitalist and a Facebook board member, doesn’t tweet anymore, but he “likes” hundreds of tweets a week, a group that recently included a string that mocked the public’s fear that new media forms can be turned into “weapons of total mind control.”
Perhaps these are the wrong reasons for outrage, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be outraged. What Facebook is selling to political campaigns is the same thing Uber is selling to its drivers and customers and what YouTube is selling to advertisers who hope to reach an audience of children — namely, the right to bypass longstanding rules and regulations in order to act with impunity.