Cambridge Analytica Crisis: Why Vilifying Facebook Can Do More Harm Than Good

Throughout the week, I've been following Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal as it's been raging on, growing more and more incredulous. Yes, this is a pretty bad crisis for Facebook (which they inadvertently made even worse by their clumsy actions last week). But it still felt to me that the public outrage was overblown and to a significant degree misdirected. Here are the key things that contributed to those feelings:

1. Don't lose sight of the actual villains. Aleksandr Kogan and Cambridge Analytica are the ones truly responsible for this, not Facebook. Facebook practices for managing users' data might have been inadequate, but it was Kogan who passed the data to Cambridge Analytica in violation of Facebook policies, and then Cambridge Analytica who chose to keep the data instead of deleting it to comply with Facebook requests.

2. Nobody has a time machine. It might seem almost obvious that Facebook should have reacted differently when it learned that Kogan passed the data to Cambridge Analytica in 2015 — e.g. extensive data audit of Cambridge Analytica machines would have certainly helped. The problem is, it's always easy to make such statements now, yet nobody has a time machine to go back and adjust her actions. Was Facebook sloppy and careless when it decided to trust the word of the company that already got caught breaking the rules? Sure. Should it be punished for that? Perhaps, but rather than using the benefit of hindsight to argue that it should have acted differently in this particular case, it seems more worthwhile to focus on how most companies dealing with users' data approach those "breach of trust" situations in general.

3. Singling out Facebook doesn't make sense. To the previous point, Facebook isn't the only company operating in such a fashion. If one wants to put this crisis to good use, it makes more sense to demand for more transparency and better regulatory frameworks for managing users' data, rather than single out Facebook, and argue that it needs to be regulated and/or punished.

4. Don't lose sight of the forest for the trees. It's also important to remember that the data privacy regulation is a two-way road, and by making the regulations tighter, we might actually make Facebooks of the world better, not worse, harming the emerging startups instead. This is a topic for another post, but in short, strict data regulation usually aids the incumbents while harming the startups that find it more difficult to comply with all the requirements.

5. Data privacy is a right — since when? Finally, while the concept of data privacy as a right certainly seems attractive, it's not as obvious as it might seem. Moreover, it raises an important question — when exactly did the data privacy become a right? This isn't a rhetorical question either. It certainly wasn't so in the past: many of the current incumbents have enjoyed (or even continue to enjoy) periods of loose data regulation in the past (e.g. like Facebook in 2011-2015, or so). So if we pronounce the data privacy to be the right today, we are essentially stifling the competition going forward by denying the startups of today similar opportunities. Does this sound nice? Of course not, but that's the reality of the market, and we have to own it before making any rash decisions, even if some things seem long overdue.

Overall, this crisis is indicative of multiple issues around data management, and can serve to launch a productive discussion on how we might address the data privacy concerns going on. At the same time, it doesn't do anyone any good to vilify Facebook beyond necessary (and some of the reporting these days was utterly disgusting and irresponsible), the #deletefacebook campaign doesn't really seem to be justified (again, why not get rid of the vast majority of the apps then, given that Facebook isn't that different from the rest) and any further discussion about data privacy should be carefully managed to avoid potentially harmful consequences - most of us have no desire to find themselves in the world where we have perfect data privacy, and no competition.