So it turns out privacy is a luxury only the rich can afford. For the poors, being the product is their lot in life if they want cool tech stuff, and all this claptrap about companies not selling you is “glib” elitist nonsense. At least that’s how I’m reading Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s comments on the subject.
In a Vox interview, Ezra Klein asked Mr. Zuckerberg about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s assertion that he would never be in Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes when it came to privacy. Mr. Cook was surely blunt when he said “I wouldn’t be in this situation,” and Mr. Zuckerberg was probably right to take personal affront.
His answer to Ezra Klein, however, only dug the hole deeper, at least to me. While a lot of coverage on this interview has focused on the idea that Mr. Zuckerberg was taking his own dig at Tim Cook, it was the subtext that raised my hackles. Let’s go to the tape (emphasis added).
Mark Zuckerberg comments to Vox
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. The reality here is that if you want to build a service that helps connect everyone in the world, then there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay. And therefore, as with a lot of media, having an advertising-supported model is the only rational model that can support building this service to reach people.
That doesn’t mean that we’re not primarily focused on serving people. I think probably to the dissatisfaction of our sales team here, I make all of our decisions based on what’s going to matter to our community and focus much less on the advertising side of the business.
But if you want to build a service which is not just serving rich people, then you need to have something that people can afford. I thought Jeff Bezos had an excellent saying on this in one of his Kindle launches a number of years back. He said, “There are companies that work hard to charge you more, and there are companies that work hard to charge you less.” And at Facebook, we are squarely in the camp of the companies that work hard to charge you less and provide a free service that everyone can use.
I don’t think at all that that means that we don’t care about people. To the contrary, 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.
Man Who Shoe Fits Says What?
I mean, seriously. Stockholm syndrome? Those are mighty big words for a man whose platform has been (and may still be being) used by propagandists like Russia for disrupting elections and undermining democracy in the West. I also learned in this Vox piece that racists in Myanmar have been using Facebook to spread anti-Rohingya propaganda. And don’t even get me started on Mr. Zuckerberg’s decision to perform psychology experiments on Facebook users without their knowledge or permission.
So, please, Mr. Zuckerberg, spare me your pious bleating.
What Price Our Privacy?
There’s so much I disagree with in Mr. Zuckerberg’s comments, but there is a kernel of truth buried deep inside his defensiveness. Apple’s products are expensive compared to most of its hardware competition. Apple’s products are largely affordable by more affluent users, and they are frankly not in reach of vast numbers of the planet’s poor.
But to say the only other option is advertising-supported services that make the user the product is intellectually lazy. The truth is that making users the product is the fastest way to grow. Humans love “free,” especially when they are unaware of the true costs of that free service. But that’s not to say that there’s no room for other models servicing lower income demographics. More specifically, being ad supported doesn’t mean you have trade on our lives the way Facebook (and Google) does.
You may have to be that mercenary about your users if you want to be valued in the hundreds of billions in next to no time, but that’s not the same as it being the only way to be ad-supported or that it’s the only way to connect people.
The more I learn about Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg, the more I come back to this: Mark Zuckerberg was too young to have learned the difference between what he could do and what he should do when Facebook exploded. All of the controversies that have beset Facebook in the last few years appear to stem from that basic question. Yes, we can do this, but should we?
Too often the answer to that basic question has been “No, we should not do this,” but Facebook did it anyway.