When I think about the current controversy around Facebook, personal data and the recently departed Cambridge Analytica, I am reminded of MAD Magazine. (Stay with me for a bit.) MAD was a rite of passage for Gen Xers such as myself. Irreverent and satirical of all things pop culture, the magazine was edgy (for that time) and a shock to polite sensibilities of the day. At a time when most people’s exposure to comedy was laugh-tracked sitcoms and Carson’s “Tonight Show,” MAD exposed the artificially flavored vanilla entertainment we were consuming for what it was, formulaic and fake.
It may seem that MAD magazine is tenuously relevant to today’s topic of data privacy, and I would agree except for one critical element. While parents and teachers could feel the sedition and revolution brewing in those pages they were comically inept at doing anything about it. Despite their frowns, despite all of their threats to censure, confiscate or ban the magazine, the magazine made its mark on my generation and contributed to a progression in brutally honest and sardonic comedy (“The Simpsons,” “Family Guy,” “Chappelle’s Show,” etc., etc.)
Fast forward to the congressional hearings where Mark Zuckerberg was grilled for hours on Facebook’s use of user data. Facebook was simply the poster boy for an uncomfortable data revolution well under way, but the hearings were very revealing. We saw Senators struggle, sometimes comically, to understand what really bothered them about this fiasco. Occasionally, they threw out threats to salvage their visibly worn-out veneer of authority. It was that familiar hapless authority figure trying to manage something ambiguously unnerving, while submitting to the inevitable change.
I am not sure how we will finally manage the complex issue of data privacy. However, it is clear what is not likely to happen in the near-term.
- There Will Not Be Any Effective Data Privacy Legislation. First, legislators don’t fully understand the intricacies, so they are rightfully hesitant to take strong action. Even more important, consumers are no longer naive about how their personal data could be accessed and used. There are even widely accepted conspiracies about murky information-gathering techniques, such as digital eavesdropping (“I swear XYZ is listening to my conversations because …”). Yet, every day and in very clear ways, consumers are giving permission by default when they post or view content and engage with apps. The lesson is that consumers care, but not enough to meaningfully change behavior. While a case can be made that data-driven services are designed for addiction and compel users to act in personally detrimental ways, like cigarettes, they are still a long way from becoming vilified products. For now, market demand will continue to drive lax data policies.
- Business Models Will Not Change Dramatically. When asked in the congressional hearing if there was a mass exodus of Facebook users since the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, Mark Zuckerberg said there was not. Furthermore, after the hearings concluded, Facebook stock rose 4.5% and has been on a major recovery trend since. If you believe in the wisdom of market forces, then this is a very strong vote for business as usual.
- Permission-Based Data Policies Will Provide Temporary Relief. These policies mean consumers decide where and how their data can be used. They will be ineffective, but will provide temporary cover until the next blow-up. These policies assume the consumer has time, ability and inclination to review the data policy of every platform they use. There will be companies who will enter into the personal data market, helping consumers monetize and manage their data, but their interest generally will not align with data privacy. The only one really interested in privacy is the consumer and most will not pay for it.
- No One Cares. Of all of my posts, the most informative was an article that discussed the wide landscape of consumer data. It is also the one that has had the fewest views, by a long shot. It is so dull, I rarely reference it and that should tell you all you need to know about the battle between sound data policy and data-driven consumerism.