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Move fast and break elections

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@vittoriobanfiVittorio Banfi

The rage against Facebook is making it stronger

It is easy now to be mad at Facebook. Facebook is big, rich. Easy. And wrong. We need to take a deep breath and think of the consequences. They may be far more damaging than Cambridge Analytica.

First, we need to answer a question. Facebook is in the business of acquiring data from users and then leveraging the data to sell ads without giving the data away. Keeping the data is the business model that allows Facebook to sell Ads again and again over time.

So how it possible that they were they giving away data for free?

Warning: Quick, slightly technical explanation below. If you are not interested, just skip to the ‘Rage will bring regulations’ chapter below.

Let’s take a quick step back. It’s 2011. I was one of those kids. I was messing around with the Facebook API. It was incredibly open and it worked like this:

  • Create a Facebook app inside the developer portal
  • Add authorization logic
  • Have one person authorize your app
  • You get his unique profile id
  • You also get all the profile id of his friends
  • Congrats. You can now query facebook for public information with any app using the ids that you harvested

This approach created an underground market for Ids. This is the situation that Cambridge Analytica used to grab the data it needed. They acquired Ids.

Why was Facebook API leaking like that? Facebook was moving fast, pushing hard on the platform adoption. They were breaking things, literally: The APIs were unstable due to continuous releases. They were often down. Not leaking data — or Ids — was not a priority. They were focused on growth. They had no idea they were going to move fast and break elections.

Facebook later fixed that, but once the data is out, it’s out. It is close to impossible to recover the damage, in my opinion. Even if all the data was deleted physically from the face of earth (which is near to impossible to prove), guys like Cambridge Analytica can use the statistical model created from this data, without touching the data anymore.

Now, take a deep breath. I’ll wait.

Done?

Ok.

Let’s move on.

Rage will bring regulations

Photo by Claire Anderson on Unsplash

It is clear that all this rage will result in a public push toward regulations of some sort. Now, as you may know, it is not possible to regulate Facebook exclusively. Regulations have to apply to everybody. So we have to assume that we may end up in regulating all of the social networks.

Do you really think that any sort of regulation could have prevented the data leak above? A regulation that does not allow you to release a partially leaking, slightly exploitable API three time a week? Really? How are you going to enforce it? You would need the authorities to monitor all the social media data flow? Each API release?

You know where else the authorities monitor the social media? China. North Korea. You know. Dictatorships.

Yesterday I met a student who is building a social network to organize protests. Let’s say that we introduce those regulations tomorrow. Who do you think will be affected — Facebook, with millions available for lawyers and PR? Or the student building a social-network in his dorm room to organize protests?

Building networks freely is very important for our democratic system. Regulations will kill new, brave startups and will give more power and leverage to companies like Facebook. It is not surprising that Zuckerberg said he’s open to regulations

So how is this going to work out?

I know that this is hard to admit, but it’s already working out. People took notice as they do with all the norm society requires, but it’s simply not possible to enforce at any time with regulation. People care about how their data is used. The same people will choose whether to continue using services that have been, or are, untrustworthy. The switching cost on the internet is close to zero. In other words, you can just stop using Facebook and move to another social network. This is how fragile Facebook is. It’s way more fragile than, say, Microsoft in 1998. You don’t like it? Stop using it. Move on to another network. Your phone contacts have all of your friends anyway.

Oh by the way. A (bonus) contrarian point:

Social media has always been political, it’s just that this time we don’t like the outcomes

The Arab spring. The 2011 London riots. The first Obama elections. The social networks have been used for political objectives. It is not that we suddenly discovered their power and influence only now. So please don’t act surprised.

Thanks for reading. During my week, I’m building a chatbot focused startup called Botsociety.

If you don’t agree, please leave a comment and tell me why. Go on. I have thick skin.

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