Facebook and its founder Mark Zuckerberg are facing legal problems on multiple fronts these days. There’s the class-action complaint alleging lax security measures increased users’ risk of identity theft, following the 2018 hack of 50 million user accounts.1,2
Then there’s the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) probe into Facebook’s compliance with a 2011 consent agreement to safeguard users’ personal information, which has been ongoing for the past year.
According to Fortune Magazine,3 if the company is found to have violated the agreement, fines amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars may be levied. According to a March 4, 2019, report by Wired,4 the U.S. House Judiciary Committee is also conducting an investigation looking for links between Cambridge Analytica, Russia, President Trump and WikiLeaks.
In addition to that, the FTC recently launched a second criminal investigation into the company’s controversial data sharing practices. Top executives are also leaving the company — a sign that the rats are fleeing from Facebook’s sinking ship.
Among them are Facebook’s chief product officer, Chris Fox, who has been with the company for 13 years, and Chris Daniels, vice president of WhatsApp, a position he’s held only since May.5,6
FTC Probe No. 1
The first, still ongoing, FTC investigation revolves around the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where it was discovered Facebook allowed a British political consulting firm access to some 87 million Facebook users’ data, which was allegedly used in an effort to sway public opinion in the U.S. presidential election. As reported by Fortune last year:7
“In the 2011 case, the agency [FTC] alleged in an eight-count draft complaint that Facebook had broken its promise that users could keep their information on Facebook private.
Facebook had assured users that third-party applications only had access to data required for them to function, while, in fact, the applications had access to almost all of a user’s personal information.
Under the settlement, Facebook agreed to get consent from users before sharing their data with third parties. It also required Facebook to establish a ‘comprehensive privacy program,’ block access to a user’s account within 30 days of it being deleted and barred it from making any deceptive claims about its privacy practices.”
Facebook insists it did not violate the consent agreement, and that Cambridge Analytica obtained user data through an app developer who violated Facebook’s policies.8 According to Facebook, Cambridge Analytica told them the data would be used for academic purposes only.
However, according to a recent The New York Times report,9 “the fine print accompanying a quiz app that collected the information said it could also be used commercially.” Facebook also does not appear to have had a verification protocol in place to make sure app developers were complying with Facebook’s data sharing rules.
New Criminal Probe Underway
All of that is now coming to a head as yet another criminal investigation into Facebook’s data sharing deals gets underway.10 According to The New York Times,11 a federal grand jury is looking at partnerships that gave tech companies and device makers broad access to Facebook users’ information,” and Facebook may now be facing FTC fines in the billions rather than hundreds of millions.12
Facebook stands accused of providing “deep access to users’ personal information” to a wide variety of business partners, allowing these companies to override privacy settings set by the user to access their data. This, despite Facebook claiming it discontinued this practice in 2015. According to The New York Times:13
“The sharing deals empowered Microsoft’s Bing search engine to map out the friends of virtually all Facebook users without their explicit consent, and allowed Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends.
Apple was able to hide from Facebook users all indicators that its devices were even asking for data … Facebook has aggressively defended the partnerships, saying they were permitted under a provision in the FTC agreement that covered service providers — companies that acted as extensions of the social network.”
Zuckerberg Reveals Plan to Morph Facebook Into Encrypted Messaging Platform
Despite a clear history of rampant privacy violations, Zuckerberg has now unveiled his latest plan for Facebook, saying the company will be shifting away from being a platform for public sharing, toward “encrypted, ephemeral communications,”14 meaning messages would not only be encrypted, but they would also be automatically deleted after a certain amount of time (unless the user opted to store it longer).
As explained in the video commentary by Verge,15 above, there are benefits and drawbacks to the plan — if anything actually comes from it — and governments and law enforcement are likely to resist its implementation. Zuckerberg’s plan was detailed in a March 6, 2019, blog post.16
“In this note, I’ll outline our vision and principles around building a privacy-focused messaging and social networking platform,” Zuckerberg writes.
“Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room …
I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms. Privacy gives people the freedom to be themselves and connect more naturally …
I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.
We plan to build this the way we’ve developed WhatsApp: Focus on the most fundamental and private use case — messaging — make it as secure as possible and then build more ways for people to interact on top of that, including calls, video chats, groups, stories, businesses, payments, commerce and ultimately a platform for many other kinds of private services.“
Ironically, it was recently discovered that Facebook was storing millions of user passwords in readable plaintext format (opposed to hashed) on an internal data storage system — a truly basic security mistake. To protect your account, you may want to update your password, just in case. Wired writes:17
“… [F]ollowing a report by Krebs on Security, Facebook acknowledged a bug in its password management systems that caused hundreds of millions of user passwords for Facebook, Facebook Lite and Instagram to be stored as plaintext in an internal platform.
This means that thousands of Facebook employees could have searched for and found them. Krebs reports that the passwords stretched back to those created in 2012 …
[A Facebook vice president said] Facebook has now corrected the password logging bug, and that the company will notify hundreds of millions of Facebook Lite users, tens of millions of Facebook users, and tens of thousands of Instagram users that their passwords may have been exposed. Facebook does not plan to reset those users’ passwords.”
Zuckerberg’s Views on Privacy Shift With the Wind
While that sounds all good and well, one has to seriously question the validity of what Zuckerberg is saying, as he has repeatedly demonstrated a complete lack of integrity when it comes to fulfilling promises of privacy. He doesn’t even seem to understand the bare basics of privacy, and has been caught speaking out of both sides of his mouth on more than one occasion.
For example, in a 2010 talk given at the Crunchie awards, he stated that “privacy is no longer a social norm,”18 implying that social networking online automatically meant you could no longer have an expectation of privacy, and that the company decided to change the privacy settings of its then 350 million users because “we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”19
Comments like that strongly suggest that he never took privacy seriously, and all his recent talk is merely a feeble attempt to rescue his deeply troubled company. Zuckerberg simply decided that zero privacy was the “new social norm” and “just went for it,” implementing changes that stripped users of the right to expect privacy in the first place.
Since then, Facebook has grown from 350 million users to 2.32 billion,20 all of whom are being invasively tracked across multiple platforms owned not just by Facebook but also its various business partners.
And while some might argue that if you decide to join Facebook’s “free” service, you simply have to expect and accept that you’re going to be tracked and have your personal data sold in hundreds of different ways, the problem with that argument is that Facebook has become such a gigantic monopoly that if you want to communicate with a group of family or friends, you have little choice but to join Facebook, because that’s where everyone is.
Facebook also isn’t just Facebook anymore. It also owns other massive platforms, including Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp. Last year, WhatsApp co-founder Brian Acton told CBS News he “sold [his] users’ privacy” when he agreed to sell the company to Facebook back in 2014.21 “I made a choice and a compromise. And I live with that every day,” he said.
According to reports, Facebook is now planning to merge the three platforms,22 which “will make Facebook more difficult to break up and spin off, as has been proposed by governments and regulators,” Express reported back on January 26.23 Some suspect the March 13, 2019, outage that simultaneously took down Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp for about 14 hours may actually have been related to this as-yet unacknowledged metadata merger.
Officially, Facebook blamed the outage on a “server configuration change” that ended up affecting the company’s apps and services across the board.24
“Was the outage a result of Facebook trying to combine systems and get ahead of regulators, especially when this month, an open debate opened up over whether Facebook’s takeover of Instagram and WhatsApp should be rolled back?” Packt asks.25 Similarly, The Register suggested:26
“[T]hat ‘server configuration change’ may have been more conspiracy than cockup, a move to bring together Facebook’s individual components. An effort so large and complex, it resulted in 14 hours of downtime. That may help explain why the biz is being so secretive about the cause of the outage. Bringing together everything under one roof is certainly one way to avoid potential regulatory break-up.”
Privacy Emphasis Likely a Red Herring
The integration of Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram is a move that has been criticized by some tech experts, as it may further tighten the proverbial noose around users. As pointed out by Ari Ezra Waldman in a Slate article that is well worth reading in its entirety, although I’m quoting a larger than normal portion of it here for your convenience:27
“Mark Zuckerberg would like you to think that winter is coming for Facebook’s privacy invasive past … The news comes about a month after it was first leaked that Facebook was in the early stages of integrating the messaging services of its disparate platforms … to create an interoperable, encrypted messaging system by the end of 2019 or early 2020 …
On its face, some of his plans are positive. Ephemeral messaging, already deployed in Instagram, can give people more confidence to share. End-to-end encryption, already used on WhatsApp, helps to ensure that the only people who can decipher a message are the sender and receiver …
And yet, I’m concerned. Zuckerberg’s post … [is] a diversion, a magician’s misdirection full of red herrings … Read more cynically, the post seems to use a narrow definition of the concept [of privacy] to distract us from the ways Facebook will likely continue to expand its invasion of our digital private lives for profit.
In his writing, it seems when Zuckerberg thinks about privacy, he thinks about encryption … In practice, privacy is about limiting data collection, placing restrictions on who can access and manipulate user data, and minimizing or barring data from flowing to third parties. Zuckerberg mentions none of that in his essay.
When he talks about encrypting the messages users send … he neglects to mention that Facebook will still be able to collect the metadata from these messages, like who individual users message and when.
When he talks about interoperability, he glosses over whether the merger may require users to give up anonymity they may have on WhatsApp to comply with Facebook’s real name requirements. When he talks about a new digital living room, he conveniently leaves out the advertisers that will be invited into these spaces, too.
And all the new ways platform connections will allow our information — profile data, messaging activity, clicks and hovers, interactions, GPS location, outside browsing history, and app use — to be used to help Facebook target ads in even more invasive ways.”
Facebook’s Monopoly Must Be Broken Up
In an MIT Technology Review article,28 Konstantin Kakaes also calls Zuckerberg’s essay “a power grab disguised as an act of contrition,” stating that “it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that if privacy is to be protected in any meaningful way, Facebook must be broken up.” He goes on to point out:
“The most problematic [principle] is the way [Zuckerberg] discusses ‘interoperability.’ Zuckerberg allows that people should have a choice between messaging services …
But allowing communications that are outside Facebook’s control, he says, would be dangerous if users were allowed to send messages not subject to surveillance by Facebook’s ‘safety and security systems.’
Which is to say we should be allowed to use any messaging service we like, so long as it’s controlled by Facebook for our protection. Zuckerberg is arguing for tighter and tighter integration of Facebook’s various properties.
Monopoly power is problematic even for companies that just make a lot of money selling widgets: it allows them to exert undue influence on regulators and to rip off consumers. But it’s particularly worrisome for a company like Facebook, whose product is information … At a minimum, splitting WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook is a necessary first step.”
German Antitrust Regulator Puts the Brakes on Facebook’s Unrestricted Data Mining
February 7, 2019, Forbes29 reported the German antitrust regulator, Bundeskartellamt, has become the first to prohibit “the cross-application data sharing that underpins Facebooks’s advertising business model.” According to Bundeskartellamt:
“In the future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts.
Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp and Instagram can continue to collect data, however, assigning the data to Facebook user accounts will only be possible subject to the users’ voluntary consent. Where consent is not given, the data must remain with the respective service and cannot be processed in combination with Facebook data.”
With this decision, none of Facebook’s services will be permissible in Germany if or when the company integrates its three messaging platforms. Should other countries follow suit, the Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram messaging integration would fall through — as it probably should.
As mentioned, Facebook is not only a national monopoly, it’s a global one, and by integrating Instagram and WhatsApp, it further consolidates two additional monopolies into what you could call a global super-monopoly with unprecedented (and likely unfathomable) data mining capabilities, which hurts both consumers and industries.
Facebook Caught Censoring Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Posts
U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has become an outspoken proponent of breaking up monopolies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google, and has vowed to introduce “sweeping new regulation of Silicon Valley,” should she be elected president, the Los Angeles Times reports.30 A detailed outline of her plan can be found in her March 8, 2019, article on Medium.31
“To restore the balance of power in our democracy, to promote competition and to ensure that the next generation of technology innovation is as vibrant as the last, it’s time to break up our biggest tech companies,” Warren writes, adding:
“We must ensure that today’s tech giants do not crowd out potential competitors, smother the next generation of great tech companies, and wield so much power that they can undermine our democracy.”
As you probably know, Facebook has promised to combat “fake news” on its platform, but it appears this censorship doesn’t end at blatantly fake news articles — far from it. Information that is unfavorable to Facebook (or its advertisers) keeps getting censored out as well — including Warren’s campaign to break up Facebook’s monopoly.
Three of Warren’s ads were reportedly removed by Facebook, with a message saying the ads were deleted because they went “against Facebook’s advertising policies.” Warren took to Twitter to comment on the removal, saying this is an example of why her proposal is so sorely needed.
Facebook reinstated her ads with a comment saying they were removed because they included Facebook’s logo, which violates Facebook’s advertising policy. It’s a rather lame excuse for what appears to be blatant censorship of information that would hurt the company.
I’ve Decided — Mercola.com Will Leave Facebook
A while back, I issued a poll to see how you felt about my leaving Facebook. The results are now in, with a majority agreeing with my decision to withdraw from the platform.
While it will not take effect immediately, I am making plans to close my account, so, if you’re not yet a subscriber to my newsletter, I urge you, your friends and family to sign up now. My newsletter is published daily, and subscribing will ensure you get three daily articles delivered straight into your email inbox (all listed in one email).
At present, we have nearly 1.8 million Facebook followers and I’d like to give everyone some time to transition over to becoming newsletter subscribers before we close down shop on Facebook. The idea that I’m contributing to the invasive data mining of that many people has never sat well with me, and I feel leaving the platform and going back to depending on email is the responsible way forward.