Conflict has broken out between two of the world’s most prominent technology leaders over the practical and ethical viability of data sharing as a business model, amid the ongoing fallout of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.
As Facebook was revealed to have sunk 20 points in a highly regarded corporate reputation index, Apple CEO Tim Cook hit out at the very foundations of how the platform works, saying in a joint interview with Recode and MSNBC: “We could make a ton of money if we monetised our customers, if our customers were our product. We’ve elected not to do that … We’re not going to traffic in your personal life. Privacy to us is a human right, a civil liberty.”
Cook added: “I think the best regulation is … self-regulation. However, I think we’re beyond that here.” When pressed on what he would do if he were in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s situation, Cook said, “I wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Cook’s stern rebuke coincided with the viral circulation of an archive video clip of his esteemed predecessor Steve Jobs holding court on the very topic of privacy in a 2010 conference speech that Zuckerberg actually attended.
In the video, Jobs says with his uncanny prescience: “Privacy means people know what they're signing up for, in plain English and repeatedly … some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking.”
Zuckerberg has since hit back at Cook, describing his criticism as “extremely glib” and adding: “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, because that sounds ridiculous to me.”
However, with several high-profile companies now deleting their Facebook pages, the mood suggests that what leaders initially viewed as the site’s primary conveniences are now perceived as liabilities. So, in practical and ethical terms, are data-sharing business models now toxic to leadership figures?
The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This row is very much a reflection of Facebook’s carelessness with data. Organisations are now waking up to just how much the type of data that Facebook deals in is worth. While you may initially collect data from social media sources to get closer to your customer and get a better idea of what they want – thereby helping you to predict future trends – the value of that data in purely human terms is far greater to the people who provided it than it cost you to obtain.
“So you have to take an ethical position. Steve Jobs’ view – that as long as you’re telling people what you’re doing with their data, and keep asking them whether they are sure about providing it – is persuasive. And just think about hospital data: if it is used in an anonymised state to inform clinical trials and better practice, then it’s great that the data is so readily available for collection and analysis.”
Cooper notes: “Companies deleting their Facebook pages is certainly a sign of the times. It indicates the extent to which firms sought to take advantage of Facebook’s facility for connecting them with their customers, long before the platform’s flaws became as clear as they have in the past couple of weeks. The same goes for individuals: many people will by now be wondering whether they should have shared particular photos, for example, that they uploaded years ago, because they are now hyper-aware of how material on Facebook can be forensically scrutinised.”
She adds: “Firms must bear in mind that they don’t have to hang on to the customer data they obtain through social media, once it has been used to inform their marketing. They can observe a ‘dispose after reading’ policy. And with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) coming in next month, they are going to have to be significantly more rigorous in their approach to this area anyway.
“It’s all about transparency: be honest about what you are collecting data for, how you are using it and what you consider the benefits to be – both for the customer, and yourself as a business. And if the benefits are not clear, there is always the delete button.”
Image of Tim Cook courtesy of JStone, via Shutterstock