Dec 20, 2019

Facebook struggles to clean up its messes

Ina Fried, author of Login

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

To speed new products to market, Facebook famously used to tell its employees to "move fast and break things." The job of cleaning up some of the resulting debris is one the company is tackling a lot more slowly.

Why it matters: Facebook is under pressure to offer users more control and provide the public with better accountability. The company has responded with a mix of apologies, policy changes and remedial steps.

Mess one — privacy and personal data: In response to persistent controversies over Facebook's handling of personal data, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in May 2018 the company would provide what he called a "clear history" tool, "a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook — what you've clicked on, websites you've visited, and so on."

  • The tool, which is now part of what Facebook calls its off-Facebook activity options, was delayed several times before finally arriving in three countries in August (Ireland, Spain, South Korea).
  • Facebook hasn’t expanded it to entire countries since but rather has been slowly rolling it out globally, starting with a small percentage of users. 
  • Facebook notes it initially developed a tool that, along with allowing a user to clear their past history, simply allowed or prevented such tracking in the future. But it went back to the drawing board after user testing showed that people wanted the option to allow some, but not all, businesses to send information on them to Facebook.

Mess two — election-related misinformation: Facebook promised to release data to academics back in April 2018 as part of a foundation-backed project "to help provide independent, credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally."

  • The effort has proven tougher than expected, with researchers so far getting their hands on far less data than they had hoped for amid the challenges of protecting user privacy.
  • Now the philanthropic backers of the project, who have reportedly balked at the limits Facebook has placed on providing data, are pulling back on funding new researchers.
  • One of the funders, John Arnold, tweeted, "I have no reason to believe Facebook acted with bad intent or purposely undermined the project. That being said, it is hard to look back on this without at least some degree of cynicism."
  • Facebook acknowledges challenges, but says it has delivered initial data sets to researchers and remains involved in the effort.
  • "No organization has invested more in this effort than Facebook, and we are committed to continuing to provide access to data for independent academic research while ensuring that we also protect people’s privacy,” it said in a statement. 

Mess three — conflicts over content: Facebook has a huge content moderation problem as it tries to manage the vast range of human communication it hosts and deal appropriately with political dissent, hate speech, satire, harassment, and more.

  • One big project that is moving steadily but slowly toward reality is the social network's independent oversight board, aka the "Facebook Supreme Court."
  • Zuckerberg first floated the idea in April 2018. In Jan. 2019 the company posted a draft charter, which it finalized in September. Earlier this month it announced it would set up the board with an initial $130 million grant.
  • In September, Facebook said that by the end of the year it would announce a first batch of 11 members, which would allow the board to start operating.
  • Now the company admits it's behind schedule on that front, pointing to the difficulties of appointing a group that's appropriately global and diverse.

Meanwhile: Facebook is plunging full speed ahead into new product areas that could generate tons more highly sensitive data.

  • Libra: Facebook is at the center of an effort to create a new cryptocurrency, potentially giving it access to a whole range of purchase data.
  • Hardware: Facebook's Portal video-conferencing device puts cameras and microphones into users' homes. While it has pledged to take certain steps to protect what data it collects and how that information is used, some consumers and regulators remain concerned.
  • Integration: Facebook has pledged to integrate its messaging services across Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, potentially concentrating the range of information it already has.

Go deeper:

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Facebook is slowly rolling out its "clear history" tools out to a small percentage of users around the globe now (rather than continuing to introduce it country by country).

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