It was 10 years ago that I first came across this new website called Facebook. It wasn’t the first social media network that came of prominence. MySpace and Friendster had preceded it. But there was something different about it.

Whereas people tended to use fake names and fake profile pictures on other social networks, on Facebook people actually used real names and pictures. This probably had to do with the fact that Facebook was initially a university-based social network and a culture of using real identities had been established.

When I first started looking into Facebook as part of my job as a researcher for an international telco, back in 2008, there were just over 100,000 Malaysians on that social network.

Fast forward a decade and today Facebook is the biggest, most successful social network around. There are some 12.75 million Malaysian Facebook members (out of 2.2 billion members worldwide). It has become a big part of our lives that we don’t even think about it.

We just log on to check status updates and messages several times a day, every day. What other website do you visit so often? Google perhaps but with Google, you go in, search for what you want and get out. With Facebook you linger around for a whole lot longer.

Data scandal

Facebook, of course, knows everything you do on its site and it leverages on your demographic and online behaviour to sell advertising. That’s how it makes its money. Everyone knows that and no one really cares. That is until the Cambridge Analytica story broke.

That scandal highlights the perils of Facebook’s business model. Data on about 50 million users was gathered on Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica for commercial purposes, in particular to support Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Facebook says it had authorised access to that data for academic purposes and Cambridge Analytica cheated by using it for other commercial and political purposes.

A high profile backlash ensued. A #deletefacebook hashtag emerged and several famous people made a point of exiting Facebook. Among them were Tesla’s Elon Musk, Brian Acton (a co-founder of Whatsapp), singer Cher and comedian Will Ferrell. Stocks are down with Facebook having lost about US$100 billion (rm387 billion) over the past two months. Some advertisers are also quitting Facebook.

Changes afoot

Facebook has responded on many fronts. Firstly, it has announced four election security areas that it will be tightening: (i) eliminating foreign interference, (ii) removing fake accounts, iii) increasing ad transparency and (iv) reducing the spread of false news.

“During the 2016 US election, foreign actors tried to undermine the integrity of the electoral process. Their attack included taking advantage of open online platforms — such as Facebook — to divide Americans, and to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt,” Facebook’s VP of Product Management Guy Rosen said in a press conference. “None of us can turn back the clock but we’re are all responsible for making sure the same kind of attack on our democracy does not happen again.”

Facebook is also cutting off companies that are in the business of collecting and selling the personal data of its members. These so-called data brokers sell such data to advertisers. The company said in a blog post that its decision to wind down its Partner Categories programme is part of its effort to improve user privacy.

Lastly, Facebook unveiled its redesigned privacy settings page which will give customers more control over how Facebook and third-party apps can access users’ personal data. “We’ve heard loud and clear that privacy settings and other important tools are too hard to find and that we must do more to keep people informed,” the company said in a blog posting.

Hard to disconnect

Some commentators have said that Facebook’s attempt at regaining users’ trust is too little, too late. Indeed a Reuters/Ipsos poll, conducted between March 21 and 23, found that only 41 per cent of American adults trust Facebook to “obey laws that protect your personal information.” It’s worth noting that Facebook fared lower than other tech companies when it comes to trust. Amazon got 66 per cent, Google 62 per cent, Microsoft 60 per cent, Apple 53 per cent and Yahoo 48 per cent.

Yet, we’re not seeing a mass exodus of Facebook members. And that’s because Facebook has become so pervasive that it’s very hard to leave it behind. Some might want to do it as a statement; to make a stand against invasion of privacy against a company that they feel does not respect their privacy. Fine, so they quit Facebook. Will these same people also quit Instagram, which is owned by Facebook? What about Whatsapp, which is also owned by Facebook?

The New York Times recently ran an article highlighting precisely how difficult it is to completely shun Facebook. “It’s exactly the same company. I realise it’s ridiculous,” the NYT quoted Sachi Cunningham as saying. Cunningham, a documentary filmmaker in San Francisco, had recently deactivated her Facebook to focus instead on Instagram.

That same article highlighted the irony of how Breitbart, a politically conservative news site, was planning to host a panel on how tech platforms like Facebook suppress conservative voices — and said it would be live streaming the event on Facebook.

I personally don’t know of anyone who has deactivated their Facebook account. The thing is, Facebook has grown beyond being just a social networking site where you can post status updates, pictures and videos to share with friends.

Many people also log into other websites using Facebook Connect (hundreds of other sites make use of the convenient “Log in with Facebook” function). If you deactivate your Facebook account, you’d have to update all your login information with all the other sites that you login to with Facebook Connect. You’ll have to create new usernames and passwords for each and every one of those sites.

Don’t fear Facebook

There’s a fine line between highly-targeted advertising and invasion of privacy. Facebook needs to learn how to navigate that line so that is doesn’t fall onto the wrong side.

As a major corporation — one the biggest and most successful tech companies in the world — Facebook will change in response to consumer outrage. And it’s already doing that, with some of the initiatives mentioned earlier to protect user data privacy.

It will probably have to change further when Europe’s new privacy law, General Data Protection Regulation, comes into effect in May this year. So we probably won’t be seeing anything like the Cambridge Analytica scandal again.

There’s no point boycotting the likes of Facebook, which has done wonders for connecting people around the world, allowing to communicate and share experiences seamlessly. It’s no exaggeration to say that it has made the world a smaller place. It makes mistakes like all companies do. The important thing is to see whether it takes steps to prevent those same mistakes from happening again.

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