Let's slay the great Facebook beast in 2019

By CHARLIE SMITH,

Mat Baxter steers the multi-million-dollar advertising decisions for products ranging from Axe Body Spray to Legos. And now the CEO of advertising agency Initiative is telling all of his clients the same message: Don’t spend a single dime on Facebook.

“It’s about time we take a collective stand against the egregious behavior of Facebook,” Baxter said in a Dec. 19 LinkedIn post related to yet-another example of the social media behemoth secretly selling its customers’ data, this time allowing Netflix and Spotify to access users’ private messages. “Every time these sorts of stories surface they assure us that they are ‘trying harder’ ... enough is enough. I will be advising clients to stay off the platform entirely - hopefully, when they feel the pain of lost advertising dollars things might just change.”

The ad executive is right: Money is the only thing Facebook’s leadership cares about, and it will only stop being a serial offender of privacy if it takes a significant hit to its bottom line.

But it’s doubtful that Facebook could change on its own, even if it wanted to. That’s because its business-model is built upon taking the highly personal information that its 2.2 billion users post as a way to share with friends and family and monetizing that by selling it to the highest bidder. Advertisers have been very interested in that data because it allows them to specifically target potential customers.

The problem is Facebook has repeatedly deceived its users about what it has shared with advertisers and has cut a multitude of sweetheart deals giving certain large advertisers access to information that is not supposed to be available, according to an in-depth investigation published by The New York Times on Dec. 18.

“Facebook allowed Microsoft’s Bing search engine to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent, the records show, and gave Netflix and Spotify the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. The social network permitted Amazon to obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and it let Yahoo view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier,” the Times reported.

All of that, and the other recent scandals, came after Facebook got its hand slapped by the Federal Trade Commission in 2011. The resulting consent agreement specifically bans Facebook from sharing users’ data to advertisers without their permission and set down specific rules the company has to follow. Yet Facebook has blatantly ignored those rules as it has pursued its avaricious growth plans. Clearly it does not care and will continue its reckless path toward perdition if left unchecked.

There must be a three-pronged approach from the government, advertisers and users to ensure fair play. Baxter is doing his part and other ad executives should jump on board. Then the FTC should call Facebook to task for violating the consent agreement.

And the last step is for individuals to wake up and realize Facebook is using them and their most sensitive information to profit. The best way to avoid that is to delete their accounts, and millions are doing just that. Among them is Walt Mossberg, an influential tech columnist formerly of The Wall Street Journal, who announced in December he was deleting his account because Facebook’s values don’t match his own.

Mossberg also made a compelling argument that data people post on social media is their personal property, which has value, that they control and that they can receive compensation for.

“And don’t be confused by the argument that you’re getting a ‘free’ service in exchange for watching ads, like old-style TV or print. That would be a fair deal. It’s the secretive profiling, all over the Web, that must be banned,” he said in a series of tweets. “User permission & compensation should be required. In other words, your private information should be viewed as private property, which you can sell, rent, or give away, if asked. In the U.S., we have 200 years of legal precedents on private property. Your data should be covered by those precedents.”

Combine those three factors and they will strike a blow to the heart of the devilish beast known as Facebook and make our country and world a better place in which to live and do business.

I’m feeling better about 2019 already.