Shame on Facebook

Do you remember those snotty little kids who didn’t seem to understand the difference between right and wrong? You know, the little brats who thought the rules didn’t apply to them. The kids who thought they could get away with whatever they wanted — rules were for somebody else. Well, that seems to be a fitting description of Facebook, as it repeatedly breaks customer trust and invades its users’ privacy.

This is not new. I remember other occasions in recent years when Facebook has invaded our privacy. Everyone seems to hate this betrayal. What I don’t understand is why Facebook continues to get away with it.

The most recent invasion came to light last week, with publication of a report that Facebook had manipulated users’ News Feeds to determine whether they would make positive or negative posts based one what others already had posted.

That’s an interesting question. However, answering it is not worth the cost of invading the privacy and breaching the trust of customers. There are certain lines we don’t cross. This is one of those lines. We simply don’t hurt people to get an answer. Who the hell does Facebook think it is?

When in Doubt, Agree

Why do Facebook’s leaders think they can continue to break the common sense rules of doing business — over and over again — and get away scot-free? Well, one reason is that nobody slaps them down when they go too far. So they keep doing it, over and over.

Facebook’s excuse is that it didn’t know its research methods would pose a problem. Also, those methods were allowed under the terms and conditions everyone clicks on to start using the service. That’s right. You gave Facebook permission to walk all over you when you agreed to those terms.

However, if you asked all Facebook users, I am certain you would find the vast majority never read the terms and conditions. They just clicked to start using. That’s the problem, right there.

That problem is magnified by companies having terms and conditions that are much too long and much too confusing.

There are many reasons users don’t read terms and conditions. Some simply don’t care. Others care, but don’t have the time. Terms and conditions are often too long to read. Others don’t understand them, because they’re often written in legalese. In fact, most users never read the terms and conditions they agree to in order to use any online service.

Why? They never expect in their wildest dreams that they will be abused. After all, they are the customers. Who would hurt their customers? Well, Facebook, it seems.

For one reason or another, the vast majority of users never read the terms and conditions — and this is a problem with many services, not just Facebook. It’s a problem that we can and should solve now.

Something has to happen, right? Facebook can’t continue with this kind of user abuse, can it?

Perhaps the law should be changed. What about publishing terms and conditions in larger print, easy-to-read English, and keeping them very short? A simple paragraph would do just fine. Just get to the point, mister.

Doing the Two-Step

As it stands now, terms and conditions set up most users to fail. They are too long and too complex. That’s why Facebook is not scared of the courts — but it should be scared of the growing unease among its users.

Many companies are guilty of similar despicable deeds. It’s just that Facebook keeps breaking the rules in a very flamboyant way. It catches our attention.

So what’s the answer? There are two options.

Step one is user control. Simply leave Facebook. That punishment from the user base will make Facebook realize it stepped over the line.

The problem is that most users don’t pay attention to the news. Even if they did, since there is no other Facebook in the marketplace, there is no other place to go. So it’s unfortunate that users don’t use their power.

In fact, most simply don’t care — until they get burned, that is.

That leads us to step two. If people don’t protect themselves, getting the government to step in is typically required. The government has stepped in before — many times, in fact. It steps in any time it considers a company or a monopoly to be abusing its power.

This is not perfect either, since the result is not good for innovation.

However, as Facebook dominates social networking and continues to grow in importance, and as it continues to abuse users, I think we are getting closer to the point where the government will step in and start to put significant controls on the company.

When that happens, Facebook will be pinched. It will cry out and look for support from the community. However the community will be full of people it abused on its way up. That’s when Facebook finally may realize the extent of the damage it has done.

However, then it will be too late.

So go ahead, Facebook — your future is up to you. Keep abusing your users. Keep invading their privacy. Keep breaking the trust of the marketplace. You eventually will pay a very high price: government control. Imagine getting into bed each night with the government right next to you. Talk about cold feet.

Facebook, your future is being written by no one other than you. So when the government steps in and clobbers you, remember you’ll have no right to complain. It’s just the next natural step in this game you started and are playing against all of us, every day. Good luck.

Jeff Kagan

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is a technologyindustry analyst and consultant who enjoys sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry he's been watching for 25 years. Email him at [email protected].

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