Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has had a pretty rough couple of weeks – or at least, as rough a fortnight as any 34-year-old billionaire can have. The value of Facebook stock has plunged recently after it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that assisted Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, had access to the raw data of about 50 million Facebook users – data that the firm shouldn’t have been able to access. As a result, Zuckerberg is going to be heading to Capitol Hill to testify before Congress about the episode, and he faces an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission as well.

For Facebook, this isn’t just a simple glitch. It shows their lackadaisical approach to user privacy, and is especially worrisome after the company’s initially half-hearted response to others’ concerns over its role in spreading fake news during election season. Sharing users’ private data is not an error made by Facebook: It’s a fundamental feature of their business model. To them, those of us who use their platform to share our political views, recipes, baby pictures, quiz results or whatever are not really the customers (that’s why they don’t charge us anything). Instead, we’re the products – the real customers are the people buying our user data.

Now, this is hardly a new model. Television and radio stations have operated on the same basic principle for decades, offering their products for free in order to sell advertising. The difference with Facebook is that they don’t just try to get you to watch or listen to their ads – they collect tons of data about you.

In a sense, they’re similar to a government intelligence agency– they try to gather just as much data as they possibly can about people. Unlike a government agency, though, they don’t have to use subversive means to gather their information. Instead, they’ve convinced people to sign up for their service and share away. They also don’t really have a higher purpose other than their corporate bottom line, although they like to pretend otherwise – it makes it easier for them to both attract top talent and sleep at night.

If you’ve decided you’ve had enough of Facebook mining your personal data, one option is just to delete your account. However, Facebook has made that exceedingly difficult. Not only is the deletion link a challenge to find, but Facebook has been very good at burying itself deep inside the ecosystem of the World Wide Web. Many third-party websites and apps, rather than encouraging users to create separate accounts on their sites, offer you the option of logging in with Facebook. So, if you do delete your Facebook account, you’ll have to create new accounts on all those services and you’ll lose any previous data you had stored there.

There are a couple of things you can do to make your Facebook account more secure, instead of just eliminating it entirely. One is to stop using it to log in to other sites, and begin to create separate accounts for those services. That not only makes it easier to delete Facebook in the future if you choose to, but also means they can’t track what you do on those sites. Another is to avoid the quizzes and games that proliferate across Facebook, as many of those are just created for companies to get access to your profile and your data. Finally, you should create a unique password for your Facebook account, one that’s significantly different from the passwords you use to access other sites.


Over the next several months, as the various investigations into Facebook unfold, we’re going to hear a lot about the company’s privacy practices. Zuckerberg has agreed to testify before Congress, and those hearings will be interesting. To be sure, there will be plenty of political bloviating, as there always is in congressional hearings, but hopefully there will also be tough questions from both sides of the aisle. (One of the panels requesting his appearance is the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which both of Maine’s U.S. senators serve.)

Whether they come from Congress, the British Parliament or independent investigators, all of the major social media companies are likely to face intensive scrutiny in the coming days. It will be interesting to see how they react to it, and what new rules and regulations regarding privacy might come from it. We have the opportunity on both sides of the Atlantic to rein in these companies a bit before they get too powerful, and we shouldn’t pass it up.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel

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