Facebook employees are humans, too

… or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the people working for GAFA

Feb 13, 2018 · 4 min read

I did not know anything about the Facebook Communities Summit until I got an invitation by chance, thanks to my affiliation to the MyData conference, whose Programme Team I am volunteering for this year.

I can’t really say I’m a Facebook fan. More than one year ago, in some sort of “social media suicide” I not only stopped using the platform, but also went the extra mile to delete all of the likes, and photos, and content I had produced over more than 10 years. Well before people started talking about bubbles and fake news, I felt that Twitter and Facebook had become a barrier between me and the physical world, taking my time and attention off people I could have a relationship with in person instead. Call it “data portability”: I ported my data back to reality.

So, I went to the summit with some degree of suspicion: Facebook was interfering with my physical world, what were they trying to achieve? I was pleasantly surprised instead. After managing not to get distracted by the massive deployment of cash and resources, I focused on the dozens of Facebook managers, designers and engineers who were mixed with us in the audience. There were so many eyes and ears available to learn and listen from how we use — or why we don’t use, as in my case — the platform, and the Groups product in particular. It was a revelation to me.

Since I left corporate to dedicate my work and volunteering to #tech4good, open data and digital rights, I have been developing some kind of negative “us vs them” mentality. In my naïve view of the data world, the big data refineries were on one side, becoming more powerful and dangerous by the day, and on the other were the people, barely understanding what protecting the data that describe them means… if not unaware at all of their rights, and of what privacy really means in a modern world. I also wore my King GAFA t-shirt at the event.

Well, talking to the Facebook people changed my attitude. I found them attentive and understanding, genuinely concerned of delivering the best experience to their users. And of course Facebook is a business, and it’s powerful, and it developed a privileged, dominant position in their market, but it’s also made of people like you and me, lots of them (12,000 worldwide, I was told). I don’t want to believe they’re an army of evil. I want to talk to them, I want to argue with them, I want to go out and have a drink with them… even with the lawyers 😉.

Many in my activist circles are preparing to May 25th 2018 — the day the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) becomes enforceable — like the allies prepared to D-Day in 1944, stacking up requests of data release (“right of access”, articles 12 and 15), amendment (“right to rectification”, articles 12, 16 and 19) and deletion (“right to erasure”, articles 17 and 19) ready to strike, like they were amphibious tanks to break the lines of the evil GAFA axis. The objective is to overwhelm them, and cause one or more requests to fall in the cracks. The inevitable failure to comply will get one or more of the GAFAs in the news, and create long term memories in people’s minds. Fear and rage always sell.

But I’d rather make an appeal here. There are better ways to use our time and effort this coming May than storming the GAFA fortress, that is talking more, establishing permanent channels for dialogue, and take concrete steps together towards tackling the issues GDPR was written to address. Forget compliance, focus on doing the right thing. I am deeply convinced that, in many case, we’re just misunderstanding each other, e.g. because of differences in culture between the US-centric data empires and the privacy-sensitive Europeans.

The MyData Conference is the annual global meetup of the movement. In 2018 it’s taking place in Helsinki, Finland, August 29th — 31st. Join us and — if you work for GAFA or have a friend who does and is in need — come and talk to Gianfranco or anyone from Digital Contraptions Imaginarium. See you there!

Gianfranco Cecconi

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I’m someone with a few ideas here and there.

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