Facebook privacy issue exposes deeper concerns about the internet

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Mark Zuckerberg does damage control on conference call

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who will testify before a House committee next week, took questions from reporters on a conference call Wednesday and discussed his company's efforts to better protect users’ data.

Zuckerberg took responsibility for the data leak and pledged to make the system better. However, he cautioned his listeners not to expect instant results.

"These are big issues," he said. "This is a big shift for us to take a lot more responsibility. It's going to take some time and we're committed to getting that right, and we're going to keep investing until we do."

'Surveillance as a business model'

Last August, long before concerns about Facebook privacy made front page news, the Harvard Gazette interviewed cybersecurity expert Bruce Schneier about internet privacy.

Schneier, a fellow with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, suggested that surveillance is now the business model of the internet.

"Everyone is under constant surveillance by many companies, ranging from social networks like Facebook to cell phone providers," he told the newspaper. "This data is collected, compiled, analyzed, and used to try to sell us stuff. Personalized advertising is how these companies make money, and is why so much of the internet is free to users. We’re the product, not the customer."

In 2017, it was hard to get the public to take that fact seriously. Many users found it harmless if Facebook wanted to target them for a new pair of sneakers or a new phone. But using profile information to influence an election is apparently a bridge too far.

Facebook now finds itself in an uncomfortable position because some of the data it collected was misappropriated by a political marketing firm that targeted select Facebook users with pro Trump ads during the 2016 election. Did it make a difference? Who knows, but to some the whole issue is unsettling.

Separating fact from fiction

Robert Darden, a journalism professor at Baylor University, says consumers not only have to worry about their privacy while online, but they also need to weed out misinformation from what's true.

"I spend several lectures telling my students how to identify the fake news and clickbait," Darden told ConsumerAffairs. "I also advise them to read several mainstream, reputable news sources each day. And if something seems too good, too outrageous, too hateful to be true -- it is probably all of the above."

What remains to be seen is whether new concerns about privacy, along with some other well documented internet annoyances like autoplay videos and pop-up ads, begin to make the internet less attractive to consumers.

It's already trendy in some circles to "unplug from the grid" and trade in a smartphone for an old fashioned flip phone. Writing in the Daily Beast, Taylor Lorez suggests that teens are already bored with the internet, mindlessly opening and closing apps in hopes of finding something engaging.

“You think that we’re so entertained because we’re on our phones all the time, but just because we’re on it, doesn’t mean we’re engaged or excited," one 17 year-old told her. "I get bored on my phone all the time."

On his conference call, Zuckerberg said there has been no material drop in user activity and ad revenue since the scandal broke last month, but we could be in the early innings of any new trend.

Darden says the feedback he has gotten from his students recently is that they don't trust Facebook and don't use it.

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