John Naughton thinks that the worlds largest social networking site is not taking privacy rights seriously.
Here’s an interesting coincidence. Last week, the European commission announced plans for a “comprehensive review” of the EU’s 1995 data protection rules “to strengthen online privacy rights” and “boost Europe’s digital economy”. The reforms include “a right to be forgotten”, which will, the commission claims, “help people better manage data protection risks online” and enable them to “delete their data if there are no legitimate grounds for retaining it”.
In the same week, Facebook made this announcement on its official blog: “Last year we introduced timeline, a new kind of profile that lets you highlight the photos, posts and life events that help you tell your story. Over the next few weeks, everyone will get timeline. When you get timeline, you’ll have seven days to preview what’s there now. This gives you a chance to add or hide whatever you want before anyone else sees it.” Note the authoritarian tone: “Everyone will get timeline.” Translation: you’ll get it whether you like it or not. We will return to this later.
Now you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that there’s a serious collision ahead between the European commission and a powerful US company that is planning an IPO. And guess what? Facebook got its retaliation in first. The day before the commission made its announcement, Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, gave a speech to a technology conference in Munich. Her menacing subtext was neatly summarised by the New York Times thus: “Concerned about privacy? Maybe you should be concerned about the economy instead.” Translation: mess with us, Eurotrash, and we’ll screw you.
Sandberg’s speech was revealing because it exposes the line of argument that Google, Facebook, et al will use to undermine public authorities that seek to control their freedom to exploit their users’ identities and abuse their privacy. The argument is that internet companies create lots of jobs and are good for the economy and European governments shouldn’t stand in their way.
In laying down this line, Sandberg made claims about the economic benefits of privacy abuse that defy parody. For example, she unveiled a report that Facebook had commissioned from Deloitte, a consultancy firm, which estimated that Facebook – an outfit with a global workforce of about 3,000 – indirectly helped create 232,000 jobs in Europe in 2011 and enabled more than $32bn in revenues.
Inspection of the “report” confirms one’s suspicion that you couldn’t make this stuff up. Or, rather, only an international consulting firm could make it up. Interestingly, Deloitte itself appears to be ambivalent about it. “The information contained in the report”, it cautions, “has been obtained from Facebook Inc and third party sources that are clearly referenced in the appropriate sections of the report. Deloitte has neither sought to corroborate this information nor to review its overall reasonableness. Further, any results from the analysis contained in the report are reliant on the information available at the time of writing the report and should not be relied upon in subsequent periods.” (Emphasis added.)
Accordingly, continues Deloitte, “no representation or warranty, express or implied, is given and no responsibility or liability is or will be accepted by or on behalf of Deloitte or by any of its partners, employees or agents or any other person as to the accuracy, completeness or correctness of the information contained in this document or any oral information made available and any such liability is expressly disclaimed”.
Quite so. The sole purpose of “reports” such as this is to impress or intimidate politicians and regulators, many of whom still seem unaware of the extent to which international consulting firms are used by corporations to lend an aura of empirical respectability to hogwash.
The truth is that companies such as Facebook are basically the corporate world’s equivalent of sociopaths, that is to say individuals who are completely lacking in conscience and respect for others. In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout of Harvard medical school tries to convey what goes on in the mind of such an individual. “Imagine,” she writes, “not having a conscience, none at all, no feelings of guilt or remorse no matter what you do, no limiting sense of concern of the wellbeing of strangers, friends, or even family members. Imagine no struggles with shame, not a single one in your whole life, no matter what kind of selfish, lazy, harmful, or immoral action you had taken. And pretend that the concept of responsibility is unknown to you, except as a burden others seem to accept without question, like gullible fools.”
Welcome to the Facebook mindset.