Its appetite for self-harm apparently undiminished by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook is again embroiled in a privacy controversy. The New York Times reports that despite an assurance given to US regulators in 2015 that it would not share user data without explicit permission, the company has been sharing data from users and their friends with about 60 hardware companies, manufacturers of devices like phones and tablets on which Facebook runs. About a third of these relationships appear to have ended, and no evidence has emerged of data misuse. This is not an enormity like the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, where Facebook data was piped out in bulk and used to target swing voters, with possible effects on election results and national sovereignty.
However, it does suggest that Facebook had not told the whole truth in the legislative investigation into its functioning. Besides, the defence that the company has offered is tailor-made to raise suspicions, and hackles. Stripped of legalese and technicalese, it boils down to an insincerity. Essentially, the social media giant is saying that it promised the authorities not to share data with third parties without permission. However, it does not consider the hardware manufacturers it contracted with as third parties, but as part of the Facebook ecosystem, and therefore there has been no violation. In a social context, a rough parallel would be to suggest that even if one had agreed not to divulge the secrets of an acquaintance to other acquaintances, it would be all right to divulge them to one’s mother-in-law, since she is a relation and not an acquaintance.
Apart from incensing lawmakers, which could have serious consequences, this controversy again reduces the credibility of the social leader among users and the industry. In the US, younger people are reportedly moving away from Facebook to other social platforms, and Apple has just demonstrated improvements to its Safari browser which render visible attempts by social media to track users across the internet, and provide options to block them. The measures address all trackers, but the example used in the demo was Facebook. The significance of the choice was not lost on the industry. If this trend continues, Facebook could lose its market dominance owing to public and state suspicion and a broken business model. For the industry, though, that might not necessarily be a bad thing.