Facebook will emerge stronger from privacy scandal
N. Balakrishnan says the social media giant will survive our current angst about an invasion of privacy because people will baulk at paying for protection, and any regulation will in the end serve to entrench the incumbent
What is happening now to Facebook is a metamorphosis, not extinction. Just as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg discarded his signature hoodie and put on a jacket and tie to testify at the US Congress, his company will also outgrow its adolescence to become an even more powerful, if more sedate, company in future.
Doomsayers predict that the supposed “invasion of privacy” that has upset users will spell its doom. But advertisers, the lifeblood of Facebook, don’t seem to have abandoned it yet. The chances are that Facebook will not only survive this crisis but emerge stronger, as did the earlier villain Microsoft, which was crucified a decade ago for its “monopoly” internet browser. At the time, Bill Gates, then the world’s richest man, was portrayed as evil incarnate.
The Microsoft co-founder has since reinvented himself as a compassionate philanthropist and his Windows operating system is everywhere. What happened to Microsoft will happen to Facebook, too.
I don’t say this because I think Facebook is innocent when it comes to invading our privacy, but because all the sanctimonious pundits who denounce Facebook will not be prepared to pay for “privacy”. The simple truth is that if Facebook were to provide the services it provides now, without “invading” people’s privacy, it would have to charge a lot. There won’t be many queuing up for that option.
There are, of course, other similar services that guarantee privacy – if you are willing to pay for them.
Facebook clearly answers a human need. I am not an active user but friends are. I am struck by how Facebook now gives many people propaganda machinery, albeit on a small scale, that was available only to the mighty state even a decade ago.
Mild-mannered people become petty tyrants and insist on recruiting friends to their pet causes. I have friends across a broad spectrum, which makes it awkward to accept or decline requests to endorse the multitude of causes, religions and other chatter that clutter Facebook.
Almost always, these causes exhort one to support the extremes. Centrist views are hard to find.
I cannot imagine the various Facebook users – from small businesses looking for a free noticeboard to minorities with deeply held convictions, and grandparents who don’t seem to realise that all grandchildren look cute – giving up the social media platform for fear that their privacy is being invaded.
When I was a student in the US, the Massachusetts authorities insisted on displaying my photograph on my driver’s licence. When I went to New York City for graduate studies and went to renew my driver’s licence, I was told my photo would not be required, to protect my privacy. This was at a time when the student dorms in New York City were very unsafe; I remember a couple of shootings, one fatal, not far away. So, certain types of privacy – namely to live privately and safely in one’s dorm – were not protected, but you can sleep soundly knowing that no one looking at your driver’s licence will be able to see your face.
New York City has more absurd regulations – including not allowing anyone under 21 to rent a motel room on their own, even though he or she could buy a gun in most American states or get drafted by the military at 18. Motel owners, fed up with groups of youngsters renting a room, partying hard and breaking furniture, lobbied for such regulations, and got them.
One winter in New York, my adult son, delayed by a snow storm in Massachusetts on the way back from college, turned up late at the New York airport and needed a room. He was promptly denied one and was facing the prospect of sleeping on the benches. So he called me and I called the manager to reason with him. Finally, the manager accepted that my son was no threat and said he would accept a guarantee letter from me, allowing him to sleep in a motel room.
I cannot think of a more egregious form of denial of individual rights and collective punishment of youth. But this regulation is accepted in New York state as normal.
Facebook, which has grown up in the early “Wild West” phase of social media development, may actually welcome regulation now, since that would see the government playing the role of referee, rather than having to face the wrath of the sanctimonious few on its own.
One added benefit is that with almost every “regulated” industry comes the unintended consequence of entrenching the incumbent, be it airlines or utility companies. Facebook will be no exception. It will not only survive but go on to scale greater heights as a “regulated” company.
At the end of the day, Facebook is a reflection of our human contradictions about petty power and privacy. It is just a mirror.
N. Balakrishnan is a former foreign correspondent and an entrepreneur in Southeast Asia and India