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Mar 23, 2018

The New York Times | Bits: Zuckerberg’s Answers to Privacy Scandal Raise More Questions

The New York Times


Zuckerberg’s Answers to Privacy Scandal Raise More Questions
Mark Zuckerberg in Barcelona, Spain, in 2016. Switching to a subscription model wouldn’t fix all of Facebook’s problems overnight, but it would make Mr. Zuckerberg’s network harder to exploit.
Mark Zuckerberg in Barcelona, Spain, in 2016. Switching to a subscription model wouldn’t fix all of Facebook’s problems overnight, but it would make Mr. Zuckerberg’s network harder to exploit. Manu Fernandez/Associated Press
Each week, Kevin Roose, technology columnist at The New York Times, discusses developments in the tech industry, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two. 
You know those weeks when crazy things happen at work, your entire schedule goes haywire and the concept of a good night’s sleep starts to resemble a hazy and futile dream, like full employment or healthy pizza?
Well, folks, this was one of those weeks. On Friday night, when Facebook published a blog post saying that it had suspended Cambridge Analytica for misappropriating user data — a post that was intended to pre-empt articles by The New York Times and The Observer of London about that very subject, which were published the next day — it became clear that this was a new kind of Facebook privacy scandal. It has already led to congressional inquiries and user revolts, thrusting the company into the kind of chaos it had not seen in its 14-year history.
On Wednesday, after a five-day silence and lots of speculation about his whereabouts, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, finally re-emerged with a Facebook post and an interview with my colleague Sheera Frenkel and me, among others. You can read the transcript of our interview here, and read our article about Facebook’s horrible week here.
We had only about 30 minutes on the phone with Mr. Zuckerberg, but we managed to get him to address several important topics: the Cambridge Analytica mess,Facebook’s lax data policies, its plans to clamp down on third-party developer access and notify users whose data was misused, election interference (including previously unreported Macedonian attempts to interfere in last year’s Alabama special election) and Facebook’s broader responsibility as a global power.
But Mr. Zuckerberg’s responses also raised more questions.
Here, for example, is how he answered a question about Facebook’s business model, which is based on selling advertisers and developers the ability to target Facebook users based on their personal data.
Roose: Is the basic economic model of Facebook, in which users provide data that Facebook uses to help advertisers and developers to better target potential customers and users — do you feel like that works, given what we now know about the risks?
Zuckerberg: Yeah, so this is a really important question. The thing about the ad model that is really important that aligns with our mission is that — our mission is to build a community for everyone in the world and to bring the world closer together. And a really important part of that is making a service that people can afford. A lot of the people, once you get past the first billion people, can’t afford to pay a lot. Therefore, having it be free and have a business model that is ad-supported ends up being really important and aligned.
Now, over time, might there be ways for people who can afford it to pay a different way? That’s certainly something we’ve thought about over time. But I don’t think the ad model is going to go away, because I think fundamentally, it’s important to have a service like this that everyone in the world can use, and the only way to do that is to have it be very cheap or free.
Narrowly, it may be true that being free and ad supported helps Facebook achieve its goals of connecting billions of people to its services. Facebook has developed a number of ways to make itself cheaper and easier to access — including, in some countries, effectively subsidizing use through its Free Basics program, which allows people to use Facebook without its counting toward their data plans.
But it’s not clear this approach has served society well. Especially in countries like Myanmar, where Facebook was recently blamed by United Nations investigators for fueling ethnic violence against the Rohingya, it’s possible that having a slightly higher barrier to entry would be a net good, even if it cost Facebook some users in the short term. (And it’s not even clear that it would. People already pay for their cellphones and data plans all over the world, and might be willing to part with a small fee to keep using their favorite social network.)
Switching to a subscription model wouldn’t fix all of Facebook’s problems overnight. There would still be foreign actors trying to interfere in elections, false news and divisive content intending to sway public opinion, and innumerable other issues. But moving away from an ad-supported model would make the network harder to exploit. (Bot networks are less effective on subscription platforms, for example.) And it would lessen the company’s incentive to sell out its users’ privacy to advertisers.
Facebook has already shown a willingness to try new models. WhatsApp, for example, makes money by charging businesses for an enterprise product that lets them message their customers. And this week, in an announcement immediately buried by an avalanche of other news about the company, Facebook said it was experimenting with a subscription model that would allow popular creators to charge $5 per month for access to their posts.
What if all of Facebook cost $5 per month to use, and certain types of divisive and exploitable ad categories and behaviors were removed from the network entirely? Would users revolt en masse, and decide to colonize some other free social media app? Would Facebook collapse without a pipeline of advertising dollars?
Maybe. But being smaller might not be a bad thing. If we’ve learned anything from this year’s troubles, it’s this: Facebook’s platform problems multiply as it gets bigger and more complex, but its ability to deal with those problems stays fairly constant. Zuckerberg might be dedicated to fixing Facebook’s problems, but unless he addresses its biggest problem of all — its enormous scale, paired with a business model that requires the company to monetize its users’ private data to the greatest extent possible — there’s only so much he can do. 
In Case You Missed It
Zuckerberg, Facing Facebook’s Worst Crisis Yet, Pledges Better Privacy
By SHEERA FRENKEL AND KEVIN ROOSE
In his first public statements concerning a scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, Mark Zuckerberg said “there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.”
Mark Zuckerberg’s Reckoning: ‘This Is a Major Trust Issue’
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Facebook’s chief executive spoke with The New York Times about data privacy of users, Cambridge Analytica and the company’s next steps.
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