The ASTOUNDZ office was particularly engaged during the live-streamed congressional hearing that took place this week. 44 state senators had five minutes to grill, or not to grill, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO and co-founder of Facebook, on the Cambridge Analytica exposé and Facebook’s responsibility for it. If you are in the technology industry, or have a slightly deeper knowledge of how the internet works, you might have cringed during certain questions. In addition to important concerns related to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, some questions contained important technological issues that were over-simplified, but also represented small, unrelated issues that were over-exaggerated.
It was interesting to hear the diverse opinions from the many members of congress (and even the diverse opinions we have here in the ASTOUNDZ office). Ultimately, the numerous questions from both congress and our ASTOUNDZ team boiled down to two questions:
1) Should Facebook and other pseudo-search engines be regulated to protect user information, and if so, how much?
2) What is the best way to prevent search engines, applications, and basically anything in technology from learning about you?
In December 2015, The Guardian posted an article linking Cambridge Analytica, a British political data-mining and consulting firm, and Facebook user data in relation to the Ted Cruz campaign. The company hired Soviet-born American researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, to harvest millions of Facebook user data through an app called "This is Your Digital Life." Fast-forward to mid-March of this year, where Cambridge Analytica was exposed once again. This time, the company was accused for not deleting the data, and as many as 87 million Facebook users’ data was used to profile and deliver material without users’ knowledge or specific consent.
Where does Facebook’s responsibility fit in all of this? In Zuckerberg’s written testimony given on April 11th he addressed that “… it’s not enough to give people control of their information, [Facebook has] to make sure developers they’ve given it to are protecting it too.” Many of the questions asked by congress encompassed Facebook’s close monitoring of third-party developers, and how the company handles breaches in their terms of service. Other questions were more political and countered Facebook’s liberalism and views of freedom on the internet. Other questions, well… didn’t have much to do with anything. Zuckerberg’s answers were, for the most part, calm and collected as he carefully explained Facebook’s services – what they’ve improved since 2015 and what they are working on moving forward. Based on Zuckerberg’s testimony, many of the company’s improvements surround the growing movement in data collection and usage, otherwise known as artificial intelligence.
Facebook is a business, just as Google, Amazon, and Netflix are all businesses. One aspect that these businesses have in common are that they grow from “data,” a broad term synonymous with “information.” Everything you do online is stored as data in some form or fashion. If you are searching on Google, Bing, or Yahoo, you are willingly providing your data to these search engines. Over time, the accumulation of searches you make and the websites you interact with from search is more than enough information to identify what your beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors are.
Social media and search engines are not the only entities performing data collection and feeding it into their algorithms. Let’s take a closer look into consumer sites such as Amazon, and entertainment sites like Netflix and YouTube (a Google partner).
Consumer & E-Commerce: Amazon is emerging as one of the most valuable resources when doing SEO research for keywords that indicate high-consumption probability. The company is specialized in taking the items you search for and understanding why you would search for these items – a quicker process than researching on search engines. The data that e-commerce sites collect for consumer search behavior as it relates to shopping is some of the most valuable data in terms of demographic research. If you’re on Amazon browsing for items you don’t want people to know about, that information is stored. This concept can be applied to Facebook data – if you are browsing through a page and liking items, that data is also stored.
Entertainment: Netflix suggests TV shows and movies for users, now with a percentage match. They determine these matches by the “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” feature. What Netflix won’t explicitly tell you is that they use multiple pieces of data such as the shows and movies you watch, categories you land on, and time spent on each title in a carousel to match your interests. YouTube, a different company with a different data collection algorithm, also suggests videos based on your activity.
Mark Zuckerberg notes that “it’s always been [Facebook’s] social mission of connecting people, building community and bringing the world closer together.” This is the foundation in which the company was built upon. We also have to remember that Facebook is a business, and succeeded in finding new avenues to generate money through advertising. Facebook is one of many pseudo-search engines to perform this, and will not be the last. It is the freedom of speech and the internet that allows this, and this freedom also means that users are susceptible to targeting, data-collection, and profiling by companies.
So, to answer the previous questions:
Should Facebook and other pseudo-search engines be regulated to protect user information, and if so, how much? Our team bounced around many ideas and business models that apps can use to protect user information, such as a subscription model to make user profiles completely private, more-detailed terms of service, and just generally more open communication. This is a question that is open to opinion, and we’ll leave you, the readers, to decide. Leave a message or comment on our social media posts with your opinion – we’d love to hear and engage your thoughts.
What is the best way to prevent search engines, applications, and basically anything in technology from learning about you? Unplug from the internet, or be more conscious of your activity on the internet. It is nearly impossible currently to use the internet without being tracked, especially in this constantly-growing wave of artificial intelligence. Facebook is not an exception to this theory, but rather a reason to be educated on technological details, engaged in discussion, and better-prepared for change.
Want to know if your information was harvested? Check with this Facebook tool.
Speaking of tools, check your SEO score with our ASTOUNDZ SEO Tool here!