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Facebook’s Political Smackdown

Facebook phone app displaying 'Manage Your Privacy'
photo courtesy www.quotecatalog.com, via Flickr

I can tell you exactly when Facebook went from being the darling of politicians to being their target: It was precisely the moment when it went from being an election tool to an election threat.

Consider the bipartisan demand for a Senate investigation that was issued this week by Judiciary Committee members Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, and John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican.

“Facebook, Google, and Twitter have amassed unprecedented amounts of personal data and use this data when selling advertising, including political advertisements,” they said in a joint statement. “The lack of oversight on how data is stored and how political advertisements are sold raises concerns about the integrity of American elections as well as privacy rights.”

Oh, the horror!

Politicians and their generously paid consultants have been buying, selling, sharing and using this very sort of information in political advertisements for decades. In fact, politicians have ensured that the most valuable information is free for the taking in most places, although it can be expensive to organize: It is the file of voter information that, by law, is publicly available in most of the country. Your name, address, party affiliation and participation history are matters of public record. So is your history of donating to candidates and allied campaign committees. Elected officials wrote the laws that put these details about our lives in the public domain, and elected officials – until now – have been the ones who made the most use of them.

But now, Facebook and other social networks offer comparably powerful targeting data that is accessible to anyone. This reality was thrown into stark relief when Facebook announced it was suspending the ad firm Cambridge Analytica from its platform for reportedly accessing and retaining data on millions of Facebook users without permission. (A spokesman for Cambridge Analytica has said that the company deleted all data it had received from a third-party source that violated Facebook’s policies as soon as it knew of the violation.)

Cambridge Analytica, which is based in London, now faces scrutiny from digital auditors hired by Facebook and potentially from U.K. government officials. But on this side of the pond, Facebook is taking the full brunt of politicians’ theatrical outrage. In addition to Klobuchar and Kennedy’s letter, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said he planned to request more information on the incident from Facebook. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote a letter directly to Mark Zuckerberg demanding answers. The Cambridge Analytica situation has become one more point of outrage in the ongoing vilification of Facebook specifically, and large tech companies more broadly.

Purported fears about Russian and other foreign interference and manipulation are a smokescreen. The people our politicians fear most are Americans who have names like Soros, Bezos, Thiel and Koch – people of considerable means and strong political views who can give substance to a primary challenger or turn a general-election slipup (think Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” or Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”) into a campaign-killing meme.

Armed with social media tools and enough money or friends to put them to use, a novice like actress Cynthia Nixon could derail the gubernatorial career and presidential aspirations of professional politician Andrew Cuomo. I can’t speak for New York’s governor, but I would guess it seems pretty unfair to him. Nixon can easily make a living by sticking to acting, but he has no known marketable skills other than climbing the government career ladder. Why should she be allowed to rain on his victory parade?

There are countless ways besides examining our network of social media contacts to detect our leanings on everything from politics to diet. If you watch “Duck Dynasty,” you probably vote one way; if you watch “Atlanta,” you probably vote another. The same applies if you drive a Tesla or a Mercedes. Or if you subscribe to The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Or if you regularly visit the Huffington Post or National Review. Or if you recently purchased a utility trailer or a vegan cookbook. All of this information is out there in the wild, and there will be no bringing it back into captivity.

Privacy matters, but only if we make some intelligent choices about what information is worth insisting on keeping private. Your medical records, the websites you look at when it’s 2 a.m., your emails and your biometrics are worth fighting about. Whether you liked your friend’s shared post from MoveOn.org is not.

Facebook’s problem is, at its root, a contract dispute between a business and its clients. Facebook believes people connected with Cambridge Analytica retained and misused the social network’s data in ways that Facebook itself never authorized or licensed. The courts have ways to resolve such situations, along with the associated legal issues that arise for Facebook mostly because of its operations in Europe, where views and laws governing expression and privacy are quite different from ours.

But the political bluster being directed at Facebook here in the United States is another matter, and it is ugly. This is about politicians, of many stripes, reacting to a perceived threat in much the same way that mobsters do: by sending a message that you can play nice with them, or they can take you out of the game. Your choice.

The choice being offered to Facebook in this case is to allow access to its data only in ways that don’t threaten to upend the existing political order. You might boil it down to “no more Trumps.” Not that Facebook is genuinely responsible for the primary and general election results that upended both parties’ establishment players, but it still makes a good scapegoat for politicians who can’t face their own failures.

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