'We will dig through this hole, but it will take a few years.'
It might take longer than that, Zuckerberg. Facebook has admitted that more than one million British users may have had their data improperly shared with election consultancy Cambridge Analytica – and that an unrelated data-scraping operation, not previously acknowledged, extracted the data of 'most' of the company’s two billion users.
As belief in a ‘frictionless sharing’ utopia morphs into anger over the tech company’s apparent disregard for users’ data, the case builds for breaking up the big tech companies, much as utilities and telcos have been broken up over the years to promote competition.
Zuckerberg has a choice, if he’s truly the ‘man for the job’: rebuild what he had or pivot to the new. Rebuilding is possible of course, but the Economist points out that companies in this position typically find themselves 30% behind a similar cohort of companies later down the line.
So why not use the crisis for something a lot more meaningful? If anyone has the chance to posit a new manifesto for the biggest tech firms of our age, then it’s Facebook.
Here are six things that could work:
1. Open up
It’s often been said that if you don’t pay for the product, then you are the product. It’s tempting to shrug shoulders and say that we signed up for this, so we got ourselves in this situation all by ourselves. But that’s not particularly constructive, and even if it's true, clearly Facebook has implemented some advanced forms of social engineering and psychological manipulation to make us all behave in particular ways. It’s time we laid this all out and opened up the algorithms for our better collective understanding.
If we want to consume news, we should be able to declare what we’re interested in and to understand why stories are being showed to us.
If we want to be advertised to, it should be clearer why us, why now and what led the algorithm to place this ad for our consumption.
If there’s an election on, it should be clear why we’re being shown particular advertisements, and where to go to find the full spectrum of the debate.
If data is being used outside of Facebook to ‘improve our experience’, such as SMS and phone usage, it should be a lot clearer why this is being done, and how.
2. Broaden the mission
Myopic focus on one big company target leads to unintended consequences. That memo by Andrew Bosworth laid bare Faecbook's focus: 'The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.'
Connecting people shouldn’t be an end in itself. Connecting people and empowering them might be a more noble and varied goal. Empowering could mean giving people the tools to self-organise (with the requisite checks and balances). Taking us right back to the early days of MySpace, it could mean allowing people to configure and control what they do to a far greater extent.
Taking it further, why not provide a platform for people to understand how to make the most of their own data, even monetise it, and at the very least understand how others are monetising them.
3. Annoy the investors
The furious dash for profitability, dividends and growth at all costs might have irrevocably damaged Facebook’s mission. But why not reset that mission and ditch the ‘wrong’ kind of investors in the short term?
The tech sector should look to the large corporate organisations such as Unilever that have managed to balance shareholder growth with a much bigger mission. Even Jeff Bezos in his own way stands for a different kind of mission, one where short term profit isn’t shared out but reinvested into experiment after experiment - it’s the root cause of why so many are nervous about Amazon’s potential to disrupt, rightly or wrongly.
Taking more of a stance has huge benefits for the talent a company attracts as well as the mission it holds in the eyes of the public.
4. Lean in and stand for something
Facebook has so often been on the fence about whether or not it’s a publisher. Why not grasp the nettle - embrace it, fund journalism, even acquire or partner with a selection of titles per country and journalists of all shapes and sizes, offer accreditation and work with the sector rather than expecting media to constantly play catch up. Or choose not to and be much more upfront about what it is not.
By denying it’s a publisher, Facebook gets to have cake and eat it, in a similar way to Uber’s argument that it doesn’t have employees. It gets to benefit from the content and the reach without any of the risk or cost of creation, and massively distort the marketplace to no-one’s real benefit apart from Facebook itself.
The role of Facebook is to connect people; the role of journalism is to report and comment, and the one doesn’t easily lead to or support the other. There is considerable unease in the sector about the sheer scale of Facebook’s share of the market for news and comment, and the extent of its disintermediation of media brands and outlets. There is a much more prominent role for Facebook in helping renew and reinvent journalism rather than it happening by default in a pernicious and undermining way.
5. Develop a new standard for the tech industry
Rather than being a business school case study in how not to handle a scandal or how not to use consumer data, Facebook could now be in a good position to architect a new kind of accreditation scheme - a data protection, consumer interest or even data ethics framework that companies (Facebook first) should align themselves with, and which colleges and universities the world over should provide as part of any course that touches design, digital or marketing.
Wider still, the B-corp movement has been quietly gaining momentum - what if Facebook either collaborated with it to ensure that data protection and consumer rights were even more deeply embedded or even started its own ‘D-corp’ certification process to ensure companies successfully and meaningfully enshrine data protection within their governance frameworks?
6. Get ahead of regulation
With the UK government now looking at disclosure regulation for political advertising to give transparency into why particular people are matched with particular adverts, Facebook has a tremendous opportunity to put its considerable expertise into demystifying its own platform and explaining to the world at large how data transparency could work. As a partner to government, rather than a passive manipulator of opinion, it could set the tone for institutional and corporate cooperation to ultimately improve the way the internet is used.
As Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s information commissioner has said: 'We want more people to participate in our democratic life and democratic institutions, and social media is an important part of that, but we also do not want social media to be a chill in what needs to be the commons, what needs to be available for public debate.'
Facebook needs to start 'digging' through the hole. It's not just its own future at stake, but that of the tech sector as a whole.
John Oswald is the global principal of the advisory team at Futurice.