Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has a mission: Figure out how to fix the future.
Every year the tech CEO commits to a personal challenge, which in the past has been tackling goals like learning a new language or changing his diet. This year he wants to address some of the “biggest social issues facing Facebook and the internet overall.”
“This year my challenge is to get out and have a series of discussions on the future of technology and the internet and how that’s going to affect our society,” he said in a recent video discussing the challenge.
The promise comes after a rocky year for the company. Facebook admitted to a massive privacy breach in April 2018, after it was revealed it shared the user data of millions of people with data-firm Cambridge Analytica. Subsequent reports on Facebook revealed how extensively the company tracks user preferences and identities like ethnicity, religion and political affiliations.
Although Zuckerberg has continued to make promises to improve the platform and rein in data-collection processes, security experts remain skeptical and the company is facing several federal probes regarding how it tracks users. Facebook did not respond to request for comment.
Security researchers and privacy advocates have some suggestions on what needs to change:
Sign up to a nationwide “data broker clearinghouse”
In recent years and particularly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Zuckerberg and other Facebook representatives have been on an “apology tour,” said Dan Goldstein, president of internet marketing firm Page 1 Solutions.
“Zuckerberg needs to stop making bland assurances that he and his team are working on privacy, security and content problems. Positioning tens of thousands of employees to monitor and fix problems is a start, but he’s given no sense of how Facebook intends to address and overcome the serious misgivings people have developed over the past 18 months,” he said.
The company has repeatedly made promises to give users more control over their data, but has done little to actually make that possible, Goldstein said. In May 2018 it suspended third-party apps for accessing user data and added some settings making it clear what data is collected.
Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook said in January that massive data overhauls are needed to keep Americans and their data secure. He suggested a “data broker clearinghouse” that would allow people to see what data is collected and request personal information be deleted.
Set an ethical advertising policy for other companies
The way Facebook addresses these ongoing privacy concerns could have major effects on the rest of the world, said Goldstein. Limiting targeted ads and giving users more control over data would be steps in the right direction, he added. With more than 1.7 billion members, the company has major pull, he noted. Facebook announced 2018 fourth-quarter earnings of $16.91 billion in January, an increase from $13.73 billion in the third quarter.
“Creating a Facebook that respects user privacy while providing features that enable marketers to deliver targeted ads ethically will be a balancing act, but I wouldn’t count Facebook out just yet as a tool that serves brands and consumers,” Goldstein said.
Give “premium options” to prevent data collection
As long as Facebook is free and reportedly gleaning the bulk of its profit from selling user data, the company is unlikely to make major changes to its business model, said Ayman Hariri, chief executive officer of Vero, a social media app posed as a kind of antidote to platforms like Facebook, because it doesn’t collect data or use advertisements. “Their users are their product,” Hariri said.
But others have noted it is possible to profit without selling user data, or at least possible to give users part of the profit. The data sold by major companies is sold for about $44 billion a year and users get nothing in return except the free use of social-media platforms.
Nearly a dozen companies have launched in recent years with the mission of allowing users to sell data directly to companies, lobbying for a kind of “universal basic data income” where people get paid for the information they generate just by being online. They include Datum and Digi.Me. Alternatively, Facebook could introduce premium paid accounts for people who don’t want their data harvested by the social network.
Agree to an “algorithm regulator” on content ranking
Zuckerberg noted in his recent video that he wants to work in the “best interest” of users, but admitted he does not always know what that means. “A user-friendly and privacy-minded Facebook would put the power back in the hands of its users,” said Sean McGrath, privacy expert at BestVPN.com. He called for more transparency and better control of how our personal data is used.
Some solutions are already being floated: Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission recently suggested an algorithm regulator which would have the power to request information on how Facebook’s machine-learning algorithms rank content.
“That would certainly be one way to go, but anyone in technology will tell you that legal regulation stifles innovation,” McGrath said.
Facebook’s stock was up 23.5 percent year-to-date on Friday compared to a rise of 11.4 percent in the S&P 500 and an increase of 11.59 percent in the Dow Jones industrial Average.
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