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Facebook Is a Problem. The System It Feeds Is a Bigger One.

Alarm over a new report shouldn’t stop at the social network

Damon Beres
Dec 19, 2018 · 4 min read
Credit: JamesBrey/E+/Getty

It’s easy, at this point, to see any Facebook scandal as more white noise; a few million people betrayed by the social network, an egregious overreach into a user’s personal data — another day online. But you shouldn’t sleep on a fresh New York Times report about the company’s dealings with other tech behemoths, like Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Microsoft, Russia’s Yandex, and even, curiously, the Royal Bank of Canada. It follows similar reporting from the Wall Street Journal earlier this year and a related document dump from U.K. parliament just this month, but adds significantly more context to the well-established narrative that Facebook has repeatedly violated the trust of its 2.27 billion monthly users in pursuit of growth and profit.

Don’t miss the forest for the trees, though. If it’s easy to ignore the ceaseless drone of ethical violations from the social network, turn your attention instead to the companies who happily shared in the harvesting of your personal data to bolster their own products — without clear disclosures or any consent whatsoever. Facebook is a problem, but the online economy that trades on your data is a bigger one.

Consider: Though Apple CEO Tim Cook has offered withering criticism of the social network this year in pursuit of stronger privacy regulations, his own company reportedly enjoyed special access “to the contact numbers and calendar entries of people who had changed their account settings to disable all sharing” from Facebook. Apple didn’t deny the claim, and the report alleges further that the company received special power from Facebook to “hide” from users that their iPhones were requesting data from the social network.

You can see how the exchange was mutually beneficial. People who bought iPhones now had an easier way to access information about their friends — or, you know, random acquaintances they were connected to on Facebook — entrenching the social network as an indispensable part of modern life.

The nature of the business was decided before anyone thought to create an ethical framework for it.

Microsoft enjoyed a similar arrangement, per the Times: The company’s Bing search engine could “see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent,” allowing Microsoft to harness the complex social web that normal people unthinkingly created simply by using Facebook.

Amazon, similarly, was able to “obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends.” Perhaps, as Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill suggested, the retail site could harness that information to police reviews published on its platform — if you let the mind wander, it may land on any number of possible uses for friend information on the internet’s most powerful storefront, where automated product recommendations rule the day.

Netflix and Spotify allegedly had access to read, write, and delete private messages hosted by Facebook. Though spokespeople for the companies claimed they were “unaware” of these privileges, once again they did not deny they existed.

There’s plenty more, including data sharing with Huawei and Yandex, “companies regarded as partners of Chinese and Russian intelligence,” as Times correspondent Binyamin Appelbaum put it.

Data didn’t just flow one way: Facebook is also said to have received valuable contact information from Amazon, Yahoo, and Huawei.

The social network has done more than perhaps any other company to establish the terms of consumer-facing business on the internet today, but of course, it wasn’t working alone. And the nature of the business was decided before anyone thought to create an ethical framework for it.

The most powerful tech companies on this planet… have for years worked in tandem to set terms on the value of your information

If anything in the Times report chills you, let it be the finality of this arrangement: The most powerful tech companies on this planet — the ones dictating how we communicate, shop, and obtain information in the 21st century — have for years worked in tandem to set terms on the value of your data. Entire businesses have been built on this foundation, and even if the course is corrected now, much damage has already been done by the model Facebook seeded. This might be bad enough if the situation was detailed in the ever-shifting terms and conditions no one reads; that so much of this went completely undisclosed is cause for significant alarm.

What next? The social network is now being sued by the attorney general of the District of Columbia over the Cambridge Analytica scandal, per the Washington Post. It’s likely that Facebook’s actions detailed in the Times article violated a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, though the social network denies such in a blog post published shortly after the Times report. (“To put it simply, this work was about helping people,” Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Facebook’s director of developer platforms and programs, wrote.)

Of course, Facebook has denied a lot over the years. What cannot be denied now is that the veil has lifted, however slightly, around the connected world so many of us have financially underwritten through the simple act of living online. Who will determine what comes next?

Deputy Editor, OneZero at Medium

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