Senator, we run ads

26th July 2018  

by Daniele Testa, Partner at U-Start

In mid-April, we have witnessed the hearing between Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, and the American Congress, regarding the Cambridge Analytica scandal. For those who have lived on Mars in the last 3 months, Cambridge Analytica is the name of the company that has obtained, and illegally utilized, psychometric data of millions of American citizens to influence the Presidential elections in 2016. The company has been able to acquire a database with more than 50 million people’s data thanks to the infamous “Facebook login”, which allows users to access an application through the data already verified by the social network. So far so good, given that this access method is still widely utilized as of today. What was not, and still isn’t, legal, is selling the data to third parties, which is exactly what the app “thisisyourdigitallife” has done to Cambridge Analytica. For the sake of preciseness, at the times the app only had 270k members, but Facebook allowed the apps to access data also for friends. This practice has been deemed too invasive and has been amended since then, but that is how we arrived at the staggering 50 million. Technically, no breach in Facebook policies, but surely a naïve approach to the user agreement and privacy policies enforcement.

Several account cancellations, public declarations and waiving of responsibilities after, we arrive to April 2018. The Congress has requested Mr. Zuckerberg to provide clarifications on how Facebook went from social network meant to reduce distance among people, to inappropriately influencing the most important presidential elections in the world. And it is during these hearings that one of the best theatrical plays of the recent years has taken place, meant to influence (again!) the public opinion over the use and the threats of digital technologies and their application.

After the hearings, the press in the US and overseas has covered the fact substantially: Senators didn’t do their homework, they had no basic knowledge around the technology being used, and so on and so forth. Truth to be told, these were also my first impressions. Despite the difficulty in sympathizing with Zuckerberg, defined by many as some sort of “robot”, I could not but feel sorry when I saw him trying not to use the word “cookies” when explaining how Facebook traces their users’ behaviour. Some other questions were symptoms of where the hearing was going to end: “How do you sustain a business model where users don’t pay for the services you provide?”. Mark smiles and, evidently embarrassed, replies with the answer that has made the headlines: “Senator, we run ads”.

After a moment of bewilderment, and to be honest of hilarity, I had to wonder: how is it possible that a man in the position of Orrin Hatch, Senator for the State of Utah, does not know the main revenue stream of a company with a market cap beyond 600B Dollars? Especially before a 5-hours-long deposition around it? And the answer is simple, and it cannot but be…it is not possible, he must have known. Then why, why ask such a question? This time the answer I gave myself is slightly more convoluted, but it can be summarized…in a question: how many Americans, using the social network every day, do know that? In perspective to the total user base, I’d say really a few of them. That is when I started looking at the hearing in a different way, keeping in mind the main pillar of mass communication: ignorance generates fear. The underlying objective of those questions was not to understand whether and how much was Facebook responsible for the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but to make the average American aware of how little did he know around the use the Social was making of its personal data. The result? Panic. And when panic starts spreading, people start looking at the State to bring back order and safety, even in the digital world, where companies can count on financial resources that even governments can’t count on. Expecting the State to intervene usually means regulation, usually coupled with taxation or fines for lack of compliance. Congress of the United States 1, Silicon Valley 0. Let the second half begin.