In his first appearance before the U.S. Congress, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, had to answer what he seemed to think was a simple question.
“So, how do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?” Senator Orrin Hatch asked.
“Senator, we run ads,” Zuckerberg said, as if this were the most obvious fact in the world.
But the way in which Facebook sells ads is exactly the sort of privacy issue that public officials regulators should be confronting, argues Sean Sullivan, F-Secure’s Security Advisor. And the choice isn’t just between offering a paid service or a “free” service that forces users to take on what amounts to a part-time job to avoid having their entire online life profiled.
Facebook’s advertising practices have been the subject of controversies for the world’s largest social network for years. And though the current scandal involving third-party developer Cambridge Analytica specifically involves gathering information about users without their permission, that information was only valuable because of the extensive amount of information Facebook knows about its users and the nearly endless ways it allows advertisers to target them.
“People tend to think in black and white solutions, like paid or ads,” Sean said. “But has anyone heard of DuckDuckGo?”
DuckDuckGo is a search engine, like Google, but it doesn’t do any tracking of its users, unlike Google.
Can that work?
“DuckDuckGo is actually profitable,” Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo founder and CEO, said. “It is a myth you need to track people to make money in Web search.”
The site says it does not does not collect or share personal information. It serves ads based on the search a user does. And the results are generally pretty relevant!
Of course, DuckDuckGo isn’t as profitable as Google, one of the most profitable companies in the history of money. But DuckDuckGo also didn’t lose $80 billion dollars of its shareholder value in a few days, as Facebook did at one point after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.
The idea that you should just get ads based on the content you choose isn’t new or revolutionary. It’s how TV and radio became mass mediums over the last century. Facebook and Google are seen as mass improvements upon this model because for advertisers they might be. At the very least, they provide granular feedback to which ads work, with whom and when.
But this incredible “innovation” has also led to the current crisis of the moment, where the suspicion that what Facebook knows about us and how it uses that information to sell us to its advertisers can lead to manipulation so severe that it even might threaten democracy. And these fears are so profound that 15 percent of users claimed to have deactivated their accounts in one survey recently, a number that’s likely inflated but sill a sign of the times.
These fears are certainly heightened by the current political discourse, but Facebook was the focus of organized-if-not-too-effective attempts to convince people to quit the site in the past. The Snowden disclosures blunted a lot of the focus on the site, but now even Zuckerberg is expecting Facebook to be subject to more regulation.
“Facebook has like two billion active users,” Sean said. “Does it really need to track its users every move, not just on the site, but across the web and through like buttons on tens or hundreds millions of web pages? Could users just receive ads based on categories they choose? Or could they at least be able to opt out of the invasive sort of model the site uses now?”
Sean says this as someone who does not buy the hype that the “Psychographics” that Cambridge Analytica sold to its clients is anything more than marketing “mumbo jumbo.” For him, this is a bigger issue.
“I don’t like being tracked across the web and apps for the benefit of a third-party. Tracking, when I opt into it, should be a first party relationship between me and a vendor of my choosing.”
A poll conducted through the @FSecure Twitter account suggests this sort of non-personalized ad serving is what most users of sites like Twitter and Facebook say they want.
How would you rather use Twitter?
Not all business models require either invasive profiling and data collection or paying. It doesn't have to be a binary choice. Example, you could opt-in to ad categories.
— F-Secure (@FSecure) April 11, 2018
Sean notes that in the past that European regulators have forced Microsoft to stop bundling Windows Media Player with its Operating System. Europe could set the standard by allowing users to opt out of Facebook’s mind-reading machine.
“Or at the very least, Facebook could do what Google does by letting you see all — and I mean all — the places it gathers information on you and allowing you to delete it.”
Yes, this would reduce some of the site’s competitive advantage. But that brings up another important moment from Zuckerberg’s appearance before the U.S. Senate.
When asked to name Facebook’s “biggest competitor,” Zuckerberg couldn’t really think of one.