4 May 2019

Opinion: Facebook changes will let extremists flourish in peace

9:25 pm on 4 May 2019

by Paul Brislen*

Opinion - Facebook says it wants to protect its users privacy and that it is going to completely redesign not only its websites and services but also its business.

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Photo: 123RF

There are a number of problems for Facebook on this front.

The first thing to remember in all of this is that as a user of Facebook you're not the customer, you're the product. The customers are those people who pay Facebook money and they are advertisers of one form or another.

Some want to sell you things, others want to convince you to join crusades (some, quite literally) about issues they think you care about. How do they know? Because you told Facebook when you "liked" a post or joined a group.

Facebook isn't very good at keeping such data safe or letting you know how it's used.

There have been dozens of privacy breaches. Between Facebook allowing Cambridge Analytica to acquire 50 million user records and accidentally copying the contents of 15 million users' address books (whoops), you needn't look far for proof.

The New Zealand Privacy Commissioner says Facebook has questions to answer; it says it won't, nor will it be answering questions in Canada either. Ireland and the EU are about to get stuck in and even the US Federal Trade Commission is going to town on the company, with a rumoured US $5 billion fine.

Facebook's share price went up 6 percent on the day the news about the FTC's fine came out.

Facebook's entire business model is to take user data and give it away to the highest bidder, and to the lowest bidder, and to all the other bidders, in the name of fair exchange. You give it and its advertisers your valuable information and it tells you what Harry Potter house you belong to, or which Muppet you most resemble, or what city you should live in.

If that's where it stopped, that might not be a problem. I don't mind terribly much what it knows about my viewing habits, about which groups I belong to, about who I wish Happy Birthday to. If they want to sell that information to advertisers so they can learn from me what it is I'd be receptive to, then go right ahead.

But Facebook goes beyond that. Forget advertising, what about videos that look like news but aren't, or newspaper articles that pretend to be true but are in fact lies. Some organisations are happy to spend money trying to influence voters in this way and Facebook is happy to take that money with no care and no responsibility as they see it. It's propaganda but not as we know it.

The Facebook algorithm is all about matching up advertisers (in the broadest sense) with potential recipients, with pinpoint precision.

Do you want to talk to new parents in their early 20s who might be interested in life insurance? Who live in rented accommodation? With joint earnings of over $75,000 a year? Who are likely to have voted Green at the last election? Facebook can.

Likewise, do you want to connect with people who think immigration costs New Zealanders their jobs, who believe that vaccines are a secret government plot to collect everyone's DNA? Facebook can help with that as well.

But the company says it's turning away from all that advertising and the US$56 billion in earnings last year in favour of privacy.

Part of that move is to build a new way for people to communicate free from observation. Facebook owns WhatsApp and Instagram, and the plan is to combine the secure messaging function of all three platforms into one super-safe, super-secret communications tool that can't be intercepted.

Facebook will also help users manage their privacy by giving them more control over how long data is stored for.

The company will also de-emphasise the Facebook newsfeed (that part of the site that used to be full of your friends' posts but these days consists of paid posts first and foremost, including all the fake news you can stomach) and put Facebook Groups front and centre on the website.

Groups already exist and if you're on Facebook you probably belong to a few. They tend to be communities of like-minded interest. Some are open, meaning anyone can join in, and some are closed, meaning you have to be given access. Facebook plans to introduce a third group - Secret - which will be closed, unable to be found via searching open only by invite.

This doesn't strike me as a feature that people have been crying out for unless they're really worried they won't be able to host their extremist views in peace, so I guess that's what Facebook means by providing privacy.

The company's also talking about launching a dating service (no, really) and a new take on the Marketplace it already offers - instead of just being able to buy and sell second hand goods you'll be able to pay for them using some kind of secure payments gateway, thus giving Facebook access to all your credit details as well as where you live and what kind of movies you like.

None of this, not one piece of it, will actually resolve any of the big problems users have with the Facebook service. There is no move to address live video streaming. There is no move to address fake news and its prevalence on the site. None of these changes will stop bullying or harassment and in fact the opposite is probably true.

None of this sounds like a very good idea at all.

*Paul Brislen is a technology commentator.

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