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Facebook and Google Find The Limits of Connecting People

A few days ago, a 2016 memo by Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth surfaced that, in its secure assertion of the rightness of the company’s mission, has since become both illustrative of company-wide attitude and a source for scorn and concern. At Google, we’ve seen a painful reminder of the downsides of connecting uber alles, while Apple’s Tim Cook and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been busily pointing out the limitations of each other’s business models.

Amid all this are questions for advertisers and publishers as much as for users. How much can we keep private, even in a chastened, post-scandal era, as long as Facebook and Google continue to depend on data to reap billions while providing us free services we want.

“We connect people,” Bosworth’s memo reads. “Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.”

The downside, Bosworth said, might be that “someone may die.” It could be from a bully, or from terrorists using Facebook tools to plot an attack. He termed that part of his memo “the ugly truth.”

Bosworth, now Vice President of AR/VR for the company, was then head of Facebook’s ad operations. In his Twitter bio, “Box” credits himself as a co-inventor of key portions of the Facebook experience, including Messenger, Groups, and the News Feed. He’s been part of the company since 2006, and a fundamental voice in the development of much of what we now consider to be Facebook in the data un-privacy era.

Andrew Bosworth Facebook data privacyBosworth has since disavowed the memo (as has Facebook), saying it indeed looked “rough” in isolation, but was intended to stir conversation about what Facebook was doing. Moreover, he said, while the memo certainly stirred conversation back in 2016, most other Facebook employees didn’t agree with his post.

But even that assertion was disputed in a followup piece in Buzzfeed, which also released the original memo. The story quoted one fellow employee describing Bosworth as one of the company’s most outspoken employees, and generally representative of the majority of its employees in terms of his convictions about the need to connect and connect and connect (and make a lot of money doing it).

YouTube shooter Nasim AghdamIn the days since the Bosworth memo surfaced, we’ve seen an example, just down the road from Facebook in the heart of Silicon Valley, of the dark side of connecting.

A young Persian YouTube influencer named Nasim Aghdam, a vegan and bodybuilder from San Diego, travelled to Google’s headquarters in San Bruno, Calif. There, upset over the impacts of YouTube’s “ad-pocalypse,” which dramatically cut her share of ad revenue and viewership, she shot four people then killed herself.

And thus, to paraphrase Bosworth, someone actually died. It could have been worse, only the shooter died, at her own hand, and “only” four others were wounded. But it wasn’t anything good. That it happened the same week that yet more Facebook revelations emerged, including the video of that damn-the-consequences pep talk from a different era, is painfully appropriate.
Aghdam was a YouTube influencer upset by the collateral damage of that company’s handling of controversial material. Ad-pocalypse, you’ll remember, resulted when brands boycotted Google for putting their ads next to (and therefore helping finance) videos from extremists and terrorists. That, like Bosworth’s assertion of Always Connect, was another example of the limits of their approach to users’ information.
The Duopoly vacuums up more than half of all online advertising dollars, though eMarketer recently projected the their share of online ad revenues would actually drop this year, by almost 2 percentage points. Amazon should see a big jump in ad revenues and Snapchat is likely to cross $1 billion for the first time. That still means Facebook and its fast-growing  Instagram subsidiary are projected to earn $21 billion in U.S. ad revenue this year. Google is projected to earn nearly $40 billion.
Facebook’s revenues may be harmed as it continues walking back some of what led to its many recent data-privacy scandals. It cut off another data seller allegedly tied to Cambridge Analytics, AggregateIQ. After years of resisting invitations to speak before Congress, Zuckerberg will sit down this week with elected officials in a hearing on the privacy scandals.
Facebook memo data privacy Cambridge Analytica apps Separately, Facebook posted a lengthy blog piece about changes its making, including a new tool to bulk unfollow Facebook apps you no longer use. It also is automatically ending authorization after three months for any unused apps, and changing how log-in data is accessed.
Those are all fine steps, if ridiculously overdue. But fundamental challenges remain, as illustrated by the war of words that also broke out this past week between Zuckerberg and Apple’s Tim Cook.
Tim Cook data privacy apple facebook interview MSNBC Kara Swisher recodeIn a lengthy interview with Recode and MSNBC that aired Thursday, Cook said, “This certain situation is so dire and has become so large that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary…The ability of anyone to know what you’ve been browsing about for years, who your contacts are, who their contacts are, things you like and dislike, and every intimate detail of your life — from my own point of view, it shouldn’t exist.”
Cook went on to say Apple “wouldn’t have been in that position” when it came to the Facebook mess, because it doesn’t collect user data for resale and targeting beyond its platform. Cook later called privacy “a human right,” and went on to say: “We care about the user experience. And we’re not going to traffic in your personal life.”
That all was too much for Zuckerberg, who fired back:
“You know, I find that argument, that if you’re not paying that somehow we can’t care about you, to be extremely glib…And not at all aligned with the truth,” Zuckerberg said. “If you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something people can afford…I think it’s important that we don’t all get Stockholm syndrome, and let the companies that work hard to charge you more, convince you that they actually care more about you.”
The back and forth is only the latest replay of a long-running dispute between Apple, which makes its money selling high-margin hardware, and subscriptions to services that are optimized to run across those platforms, and Facebook and Google, which make their money giving away free services, and selling the data they harvest.
The question for publishers, brands and users will be whether they can do the things they want to do in a world where data privacy is actually treated as a high priority, or if we’ll all lapse back into something not wildly different from what got us here. On such issues will billions of dollars and the fate and fortunes of many turn. Can we connect people without killing them?