The Guardian view on Facebook: time to tame the surveillance economy | Editorial

Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress told us little new, but his evasions showed that he knows which questions go to the heart of his business

The second day of Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress answered some important questions: that is to say, it showed which questions the Facebook CEO was reluctant to answer honestly. Any inquest into the activities of Cambridge Analytica or the Russian “troll factories” are easily disposed of. Those horses have long bolted, but the stables they once occupied will now be fitted with wonderfully chromed locks. Third parties will no longer be able to make quite such free use of the unfathomable quantities of data that Facebook accumulates.

The interesting question, however, is whether Facebook itself plans to make use of this, and here Mr Zuckerberg was less than entirely candid or open. He said the company “limits the amount of data” it collects and uses. Of course it does. There is no earthly use for much of the data it collects and there is probably some that it could collect but does not. The question he dodged is where these limits are set; once it is established where the company now sets them, the question for democratic politicians around the world is where they should be set and what legislation will put – and keep – them there.

It is less than two years since one of his closest lieutenants, Andrew Bosworth, wrote in an internal memo: “The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply than anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good … that’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practice. All the subtle language that helps stay people stay searchable by friends … the work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”

Remember that all of these “connections” are known by Facebook and owned by Facebook. Selling them is the heart of the company’s business model. Nor is it picky about who they are sold to, as the ominous reference in Mr Bosworth’s memo to “all the work we will have to do in China” (where Facebook is presently banned) shows very clearly.

Although the memo has since been repudiated both by its author and by the company, it remains an excellent guide to the real dynamics of the business. Many of these connections take place without the user’s knowledge and are in fact made when the user is not even conscious of interacting with Facebook at all; another area where Mr Zuckerberg was evasive in front of Congress. He said he believed there were at least 100m Facebook “like” buttons around the internet. These transmit information back to Facebook about who has visited a page they’re on even when the user is not logged in. This information is collected to sell advertising, as well as for security purposes. In fact, though Mr Zuckerberg inexplicably failed to mention it in his testimony, this kind of invisible tracker allows Facebook, and its customers, to track when users make purchases on wholly unrelated pages. It is difficult to think of anything more contrary to the spirit and probably the letter of the EU’s general data protection regulation, which comes into force in May. Two questions arise: do users really care about their privacy? Should they?

It is obvious that the company does not believe they do, or that the present outrage will really damage its underlying business model: Carolyn Everson, a very senior executive, said this week that few users had withdrawn from Facebook after the recent scandals, and that she did not expect that profits would be much affected. It is up to legislators, and up to us, the people, to prove her wrong. The global power of the giant advertising companies must be curbed.



The GuardianTramp

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