Facebook’s TV ad disingenuous

You’ve probably seen the sentimentally sweet TV commercial for Facebook.

A narrator describes the enjoyable moments all Facebook users initially experience: Reconnecting with old friends, connecting further with current friends, making new friends. The joy of seeing an old photograph of one of them, or of yourself.

“But then something happened,” the narrator says. “We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news and data misuse.”

Yes, those things did happen.

Some of them happened with encouragement from Facebook itself.

As we wrote in March, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg in 2007 invited outside developers to build their businesses off Facebook’s data, giving them ready access to the friend lists, “likes” and affinities that connect millions of Facebook users. Practically any engineer who could persuade a Facebook user to download an app or to sign into a website using Facebook’s popular “log-in through Facebook” feature would have been able to access not only the profile, behavior and location of that Facebook user but also that of all the user’s Facebook friends, developers said. As long as the developers didn’t misrepresent themselves, Facebook allowed the data to be stored on developers’ databases in perpetuity.

“The model was to build and grow and figure out monetization,” said Sandy Parakilas, a former Facebook operations manager who oversaw developers’ privacy practices until 2012. “Protecting users did not fit into that.”

So trusting that everyone seeking data from Facebook was an honest broker was standard operating procedure, and protecting users “did not fit into that.”

That trust, Wired magazine reported July 10, was extended to Russian email giant Mail.ru, which for all intents and purposes means it was extended to the Russian government.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which that firm retained data on Facebook users without their consent or Facebook’s, Zuckerberg was called to testify before Congress. Facebook said it had taken steps in 2014 to disallow apps from collecting data on users, but gave some apps more time to “come into compliance” with the new rules.

Facebook says Mail.ru ran hundreds of apps on the platform, all of which operated under Facebook’s old rules, which did allow app developers to collect their users’ friends’ data. Some of those apps began operating as early as 2009.

U.S. Sen Mark Warner, D-Virginia, who has been investigating Russia’s manipulation of social media platforms as vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement: “We need to determine what user information was shared with Mail.ru and what may have been done with the captured data.” Warner expressed particular concern that key players at Mail.ru, including major investor Alisher Usmanov, “boast close ties to Vladimir Putin.”

Experts say the Mail.ru deal, viewed alongside the news that Facebook gave data to device manufacturers including Chinese companies like Huawei, reflects naivete on Facebook’s part about the power that international regimes have over businesses within their borders, Wired reported.

“If you are a Russian businessperson of a certain scale, you can’t escape the requirements Russian intelligence services are going to put on you,” says Brett Bruen, an American diplomat who served as director of global engagement under President Barack Obama and now runs the consulting firm Global Situation Room. “This is the reality of doing business in Russia today.”

So, thanks to Facebook, one of Vladimir Putin’s buddies may have access to data on you.

“From now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy,” the narrator in the TV commercial says.

That sounds nice, Facebook. We all wish you’d taken that concept seriously from the start.

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