LONDON: One of the most popular posts this week on my Facebook page was how to delete your account, as the unfolding data scandal sparked fresh soul searching over digital privacy.
But I will not be joining my friends in quitting the world’s biggest social network.
If this small sample is representative, the #deletefacebook campaign will hurt. Many of my Facebook friends were early adopters but their long emotional contract with the platform has been brought into question amid a more general sense of dissatisfaction.
Losing such Gen Xers is a real danger for Facebook; the UK’s digital regulator suggests millennials are already turning to rivals such as Snap. Active users fell for the first time last quarter in the US, and were almost flat in Europe.
PAYING WITH DATA
I have little sympathy with this sort of impulsiveness over digital life, which possibly led people to sign up to the celebrity quizzes and personality tests that happily suck up data in the first place.
Facebook — a 2 billion user-strong data mining operation that is also a useful repository for photos of my kids — goes to the point that nothing comes for free. Subscribers have been paying with their data.
Likes and preferences are a currency open to be used by Facebook by default. This scandal goes to show how few people realise the tacit agreement in the digital exchange of data for services (let alone read the terms and conditions that enable this transaction).
Clearly that does not stop fingers from being pointed. Facebook has sought to make amends but will never change its basic data-led business model.
Regulators are also busy acting outraged — even if most of the noise is in Europe, not the US.
New laws are a remote possibility, although the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation — the EU data privacy legislation that comes into effect in May — will offer greater protection and penalties. But relying on such rules, or even worse Facebook itself, for protection would be foolish.
DATA A BYPRODUCT
Responsibility lies with the user. Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the web, tweeted:
Any data about me, wherever it is, is mine and mine alone to control.
This can easily be twisted into a less kind counterpoint: A fool and their data are soon parted.
This is not just about Facebook. Other sites also depend on data for advertising uses. That is why shares in groups such as Twitter, Snap and Google’s parent Alphabet were also hit this week on the potential regulatory backlash. Many mobile apps take a fair slug of data, meanwhile.
Talking to developers, they see data as the byproduct for services, to be drained and sieved for useful nuggets. I occasionally spend time scraping my data across platforms.
From this, there appears a possible, brutal discovery - that I lead a boring life. But the lack of fireworks also reflects my efforts to keep privacy settings dialled high.
A MEASURED RESPONSE
So a more measured response, instead of leaving Facebook, is to take some time this weekend to undergo a digital spring clean, keeping the holiday snaps without sacrificing too much in return.
Guides are available online: Edit linked apps, review information permissions, opt out of targeted marketing. Unsubscribe from mailing lists and sift through mobile apps.
But accept that companies will not have your best interests at heart when their business model is tied to monetising your data. Consumers need to take charge and be engaged.
Facebook’s gaffes should help encourage a more savvy group of users who learn how to protect themselves. After this week, there is no excuse for ignoring the warnings.
© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved. Please do not copy and paste FT articles and redistribute by email or post to the web.