Facebook’s been around for 15 years. Since its launch in 2004, the social networking behemoth has changed itself countless times, transforming from a closed network for college students to a place where people, brands, and politicians all interact with each other.
While Facebook has certainly proven itself to be a popular tool, recent years have seen the website and its apps continuously come under fire for the same issue: having an unhealthy attitude towards our privacy.
The issues have been numerous. While the most notable case is likely the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where a company allegedly took information from millions of Facebook profiles through deceptive means and used the data for political campaigns, there are a number of other high-profile examples.
There was also the ‘Project Atlas’ issue. In that case, it was revealed that Facebook had been paying people, through external companies, to keep a ‘Facebook Research’ app installed on their phones for around $20 a month.
While installed, the app collected messages from both social media and other instant messaging apps, going as far as even gathering shared media. The app also collected search histories, browser activity, and emails.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it was also reported that Facebook and its intermediaries deliberately target(ed) minors with its advertising for the app. This was sinister because most minors do not yet understand the implications of giving up their right to privacy.
Some wondered about whether Facebook would be punished, but their activities eventually drew attention from the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Multiple sources have confirmed that Facebook has budgeted at least $3 billion towards an impending fine from the FTC.
Is $3 billion enough?
While there are those that would say that the multi-billion-dollar fine is a sign of a comeuppance for Mark Zuckerberg and his company, a look at the numbers begs to ask the question: is it enough?
While $3-5 billion is certainly a large number, it should be evaluated in relation to the company’s size and earnings.
Facebook’s Q1 2019 earnings came in at $15 billion, 26% higher compared to the previous year. Their Q4 2018 earnings were 16.9 billion, 30% more than the previous year.
When taken into perspective, the fine then begins to look quite small, considering that it could make up as little as a tenth of Facebook’s earnings from the last two quarters.
With business booming, will a fine of that amount really cause the social media giants to truly reform and re-evaluate their approach to privacy and security?
They have now become so big that they’ve taken complete dominance over the social media and messaging space. Facebook is already in the midst of integrating WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram Messenger. While Facebook has explained that they wanted to include end-to-end encryption on all of their platforms, their track record with privacy is a cause for concern.
For a company that derives a large chunk of its earnings from online advertising, the opportunity to create cross-platform advertising tools for companies would certainly be tempting. The high-profile departures of the WhatsApp and Instagram founders in 2017 and 2018 are also another red flag – as Zuckerberg and his team now have complete control.
While it would be nice to give the tech giants the benefit of the doubt, their history unfortunately doesn’t warrant one. It would be wise to keep a close watch of their new updates to privacy policies, and to keep an eye out for any worrying new trends or changes in how their websites and apps behave.
The FTC may come to realize that a fine may not be enough, and that new protections for consumers may need to be enacted. The future is currently unclear, but perhaps the attention from authorities will force Facebook and other tech giants into taking privacy more seriously.