Sim­ply delet­ing Face­book won’t fix the prob­lem

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - OPINION - BY ANAND GIRIDHARADAS New York Times

When news broke that Face­book users’ pri­vate mes­sages were not nec­es­sar­ily pri­vate, Taunya Richards, 44, a real es­tate ap­praiser in Hills­boro, Ore., im­me­di­ately pan­icked about her chats with her mother in Idaho, who prefers Face­book’s mes­sen­ger to tex­ting. Her son is a spe­cial­ist in the Army. Us­ing the Face­bookowned en­crypted mes­sag­ing plat­form What­sapp, he kept her up­dated as he trav­eled to his cur­rent lo­ca­tion (which she de­scribes only as a “dan­ger­ous base”), and she had then sent those lo­ca­tion up­dates to her mother us­ing Face­book Mes­sen­ger. Now she won­ders who has that data.

“For a mother,” she told me, “es­pe­cially one whose whole life has been about pro­tect your kid from these harms, and she’s just do­ing what a mother does, which is re­spond­ing to him telling her some­thing that he needs her to know so he’s pro­tected, and some­one can come in and take that and just sell it to peo­ple as data? You’re putting my kid’s life in dan­ger.”

But don’t count Richards among the grow­ing ranks of peo­ple delet­ing Face­book. “All it does is pun­ish me,” she said. “It doesn’t pun­ish Face­book. It doesn’t change any­thing. It cuts me off from my fam­ily.” Even if a boy­cott bankrupted Face­book, what’s to stop the next com­pany from do­ing the same thing? “We need the laws to say, You can’t do this,” she said.

Richards’ dis­sen­sion from the swelling cho­rus of #Deleteface­book is no­table and worth con­sid­er­ing. In re­fus­ing to delete her Face­book ac­count, she is re­fus­ing to turn the power abuses of the tech in­dus­try into an is­sue of per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The im­pulse to delete Face­book is un­der­stand­able. In an era of po­lit­i­cal grid­lock and dys­func­tion, it feels good to start some­where. There is the hope that waves of dele­tions will send a sig­nal to the com­pany’s lead­ers and to the law­mak­ers who are meant to reg­u­late it.

But it would also seem to be the case that if mil­lions of an­gry in­di­vid­u­als were go­ing to save us from the worst ex­cesses of the tech in­dus­try, we would have been saved from them by now. Col­lec­tive ac­tion is dif­fi­cult against a global be­he­moth like Face­book. Even were such ac­tion to suc­ceed, the com­pany also owns What­sapp and In­sta­gram. With a cou­ple of bil­lion users on Face­book alone, it is hard to fathom how many deleted ac­counts it would take to drive gen­uine change.

If I were Mark Zucker­berg, I might ac­tu­ally rel­ish see­ing my users ag­o­nize over the ques­tion of “to delete or not to delete.” Ev­ery mo­ment they are talk­ing about whether to walk away from the con­tent they’ve cre­ated and the net­work they’ve built is a mo­ment they aren’t talk­ing about Face­book ex­ec­u­tives be­ing brought to jus­tice and the com­pany brought un­der proper reg­u­la­tion.

Or per­haps we need a few laws. One pri­or­ity may be pri­vacy leg­is­la­tion to en­sure that Face­book’s con­science isn’t the de­cider of what “pri­vate” means. An­other could be the rewrit­ing of an­titrust law for the dig­i­tal era. But an easy, ob­vi­ous place for Congress to start is this: to do right by Richards and her soldier son. No tech com­pany’s growth lust should come at the price of our sol­diers’ safety and the peace of mind of those await­ing their re­turn.

Anand Giridharadas is the au­thor of, most re­cently, “Win­ners Take All: The Elite Cha­rade of Chang­ing the World.”

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