Facebook struggles to get out from under its privacy debacle

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been having a bad week, and it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better, as the company continues to take fire from all sides because of the way it allowed personal data on more than 50 million users to be misused by a firm called Cambridge Analytica. Facebook has shut down the specific method used in that case — an app that hoovered up not just the data of those who signed up for it, but also personal information shared by any of their friends — but the incident has touched off a debate over the social network’s privacy protections that has reached as far as Washington, DC and the European Union.

On Wednesday, Facebook tried to show that it is listening to its critics by updating its privacy settings to make it easier for users to find out what they are sharing and with whom, and then change those settings if necessary. Of course, as more than one long-time Facebook watcher pointed out, the company has done this on multiple occasions in the past whenever it has run afoul of privacy rules, and not much seems to change. Tim Wu, a law professor and former staffer at the Federal Trade Commission, has also noted that in the consent decree Facebook signed with the regulator in 2011, the company agreed to take better care of its users’ data.

Congress has asked Zuckerberg to appear before a hearing into the incident, and according to reports by CNN and others, the Facebook co-founder plans to show up — unlike the last hearings Facebook was called to attend, when the Senate and House intelligence committees questioned Facebook, Google and Twitter about whether Russian trolls used their platforms to try and influence the 2016 election. Zuckerberg didn’t appear at those hearings; instead he sent his legal counsel, as did both Google and Twitter. This time, Congress has made it clear that they want to hear from the man himself, not one of his deputies.

The United Kingdom may have to make do with a stand in, however. Legislators in Britain have also asked Zuckerberg to appear before them to answer questions about Cambridge Analytica’s usage of Facebook data, but sources close to the company told Reuters that the co-founder and CEO won’t be attending. Meanwhile, the turmoil caused by the Cambridge revelations continues for Facebook: It announced on Tuesday that it has delayed plans to launch a “smart assistant” style device similar to the Google Home or Amazon Echo, concerned that people might not react well to a Facebook-branded always-on listening device.

  • In addition to strong questions from Washington and the UK, Facebook is also getting grilled by legislators in India, according to a report by BuzzFeed. They want to know whether companies like Cambridge Analytica have used Facebook data to try and influence elections in India, and they’ve issued the social network an official notice asking how it plans to keep its platform from being exploited in that way. India has several state elections happening this year and national elections next year.
  • Although hashtags like #DeleteFacebook have been trending on some social networks since the Cambridge data leak news broke, it’s not clear how much of a backlash there is at the user level. Some corporations, however, have deleted their pages, including Tesla and SpaceX, both owned by maverick billionaire Elon Musk. And on Wednesday, Playboy magazine said that it was removing itself from Facebook because of the data leak, but also because the social network’s policies are “sexually repressive.”
  • While there may not have been a mass exodus of Facebook users so far, the same is not true for investors. Some shareholders of the company appear to be worried that the backlash could impact Facebook financially, especially if there are more regulations coming that will restrict what it can and can’t do with its users’ data (as there are in Europe). Facebook’s share price has fallen by more than $32 in the past five days, which has shrunk the company’s market cap by almost $100 billion.
  • The Trump campaign wasn’t the only outfit that used Cambridge Analytica’s data and expertise. Both The Economist and the Financial Times were reportedly also clients of the data-analysis firm, which has been accused of meddling in the Brexit vote in the UK as well as the 2016 US election. A Financial Times source told BuzzFeed UK that the paper only did some market-size research with Cambridge Analytica. It wasn’t clear whether any illicit Facebook data was part of the deal or not.

Other notable stories:

  • The New York Times released its diversity report on Wednesday and said that while it has made some progress in employing more women in its newsroom and business operations — with female leadership on both the news side and the business side at 46 percent — it hasn’t been as successful when it comes to people of color. While the number of staff who fall into that category has grown, the percentage of those in leadership roles actually fell last year compared to 2016.
  • Most newspaper companies are doing their best to get out of the print business, but in Toronto there’s a brand new paper that is only in print. It’s called the West End Phoenix, and its a neighborhood paper published by veteran rock musician Dave Bidini, who lives in the city’s West End and says he wanted to create something that would tell stories about the neighborhood and its residents.
  • Bloomberg spins a fascinating tale about Robert Mercer, who in addition to being a billionaire Trump supporter (who has also helped finance both Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica), happens to be a volunteer police officer for the tiny town of Lake Arthur in New Mexico — which has a population of about 435 — even though he doesn’t live anywhere near the town, and doesn’t really have any personal connection to it. To find out why, you’ll have to read the story.
  • Vice Media, the alternative giant with a market cap in the billions, appears to be running into some headwinds in India. Two senior editors have reportedly resigned their positions with the company due to editorial interference, according to a report by The Wire, after a story was killed that involved a gay activist who worked for the youth wing of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
  • The Tow Center at Columbia has a report in CJR that looks at the problem of disinformation by comparing two very different communities in Philadelphia. In some cases, the authors point out, “a lack of trust in media, issues of perceived relevance, and a sense of relentless negativity have led many readers to vacillate between disengaging from the news for periods of time, and seeking out alternative sources.”
  • In a bizarre incident, New York Daily News reporter Ken Lovett was arrested by state police on Wednesday for using his cellphone in the Senate chamber lobby, in breach of the chamber’s rules. After being detained, he was released by none other than Governor Andrew Cuomo, who personally went to the lockup at the state capitol and had him sprung. “I offered my services on a pro-bono basis—it just does my heart good to be able to say I freed Ken Lovett,” Cuomo said after the incident.

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