It’s time to unfriend Facebook.
In recent weeks, news outlets have been steadily publishing step-by-step tutorials on how to delete the app and reclaim your personal data. The viral hashtag #DeleteFacebook continues to grow on social media, as does #FacebookFreeJanuary, another movement encouraging people to log off for the month to prod the company to change its policies.
While electronic privacy advocates have long expressed uneasiness about Facebook’s cavalier management of personal user data, 2018 saw public opinion of Facebook deteriorate amid a series of mishaps. If you’ve yet to grasp the depths of Facebook’s malfeasance, here’s a review:
— Facebook allowed consulting firm Cambridge Analytica to mine data from millions of users without their knowledge;
— it failed to adequately stem the spread of fake news;
— it kept records of phone calls and texts made by Android users;
— it conducted secret meetings with hospitals to gain access to patients’ private medical data;
— it suffered a hack that exposed nearly 30 million user accounts;
— it failed to intervene when the platform was used to incite violence in Myanmar;
— it hired a PR firm to discredit critics;
— it exposed private photos from 68 million users to third-party apps;
— it shared user data with more than 150 companies.
It all amounts to a massive violation of public trust made worse by the fact that Facebook doesn’t seem to care. When pressed to atone for its actions, the company has been less than contrite. In most cases, it has denied culpability and shifted the blame to users by telling us it’s our fault for not reading the terms of service or user agreements every time we download a new app and connect to it via Facebook.
It’s a fair point. As digital denizens, we have made a bad habit of sacrificing privacy for convenience. We are not mindful enough of who has access to our personal data and how it is used. Facebook’s failure should serve as a lesson moving forward. That said, it is not unreasonable to demand Facebook be more responsible and transparent with how it uses our data.
Don’t hold your breath.
In the early days of Facebook, CEO Mark Zuckerberg infamously called users “dumb (expletives).” While he has since apologized, that arrogance still persists throughout much of Silicon Valley. It’s the same arrogance we saw last year when Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey blithely waved off his company’s failure to effectively police hate speech and harassment by asserting the company can’t be held responsible for how people use its product.
Based on past actions, it's apparent tech companies don’t hold us in high regard. To them, we are data to be mined, processed and converted into revenue. And if they don’t respect us, why on earth should we expect them to look out for us?
Still, untangling oneself from Facebook is easier said than done. For many people, Facebook is their only gateway to the internet — it may be the only internet they know. Even if you do gather the nerve to cut ties with Facebook, deleting your account is a complicated and time-consuming process that will ripple through your entire online experience. The ease of logging into new apps via our Facebook credentials has made the platform a keystone species in the online ecosystem. Again, our desire for convenience has become a trap.
Also keep in mind that to truly rid yourself of Facebook’s grip means deleting Facebook-owned apps like Messenger, WhatsApp and, yes, even your beloved Instagram — all of which have access to the same trove of data.
Deleting Facebook is also a privilege. For low-income users who don’t own a phone and may only access the web at public libraries, the platform may be the only way to stay connected to family, maintain work contacts or look for jobs.
For small-business owners, nonprofits, community organizers and activists, the platform, along with Instagram, has become an indispensable tool for keeping connected with constituencies.
And let’s be honest: Boycotts won’t change anything. With 2.3 billion users worldwide and counting, losing a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand users doesn’t matter. The real solution requires a firmer hand.
Facebook is clearly too big to be left to its own devices. If it is to continue to exist, it must submit itself to some form of government oversight and regulation to ensure its data management practices are above board. The European Union and United Kingdom have already taken steps to hold Facebook accountable by imposing fines and enforcing stricter data protection policies.
Here in the states, the company is facing fallout in the courts over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission has launched an investigation over recent alleged violations of user agreements.
Such reform won’t happen overnight, if it happens at all. In the meantime, we must go it alone. We must tell our leaders we demand better regulation. We must take concrete steps to protect our personal data online. And when companies like Facebook betray our trust, we must send a firm message by logging off for good.