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Use Facebook at your own peril

No one is really surprised that a politically affiliated company was able to use the personal data of more than 50 million Facebook users without their knowledge.

Deep down, everyone understands the idea of “if it’s free, you’re the product.” Facebook is free, which means your info is the thing they sell to make money.

We know this. Or at least we know it on an intellectual level. We understand to an extent what that means. But when we sign on to Facebook to look at photos of friends or get updates on the news, we tend to look past that fact. Facebook relies on emotional responses from its users, not intellectual ones.

Cambridge Analytica is accused of lifting Facebook user data without permission in order to influence the election.

Facebook has admitted to making mistakes that allowed Cambridge to do this, and says it will take additional steps to protect user data. That sounds well and good, but the problem isn’t that an outside company took advantage of Facebook. It’s the fact that Facebook’s business model is designed for just that.

Facebook makes money by getting users to provide data, often without a complete understanding of how it’s going to be used. It then sells that data to all sorts of companies, including those seeking to sway elections or sell you cars or convince you to re-finance your home.

But you never think about that when you’re scrolling through your News Feed. And that’s by design. Facebook doesn’t want you to stop sharing and think through the ramifications of sharing. If you did, you might use Facebook less.

Facebook has said it plans to include tools that allow you to see which third parties have access to your data. Depending on how those tools are implemented, you may never notice them, which means you won’t have any more information than you do today.

Facebook could easily give its users more control over how their data is used. It’s not like the technology doesn’t exist. But it chooses not to give you that control, for obvious reasons.

Facebook’s stated response to privacy and data concerns are baby steps. It wants to protects its advertising business instead of its users. And that’s understandable I guess. It’s a for-profit, data-collection company so of course it will make decisions that benefit its business model.

The long-term solution will have to be some sort of regulation. Facebook has a history of privacy and data scandals, and there’s nothing to suggest the same behavior won’t continue in the future. The problem is that no one knows exactly how to regulate the company. Even Facebook has suggested that regulation might be necessary. Obviously, the company is trying to get in front of any steps toward regulation in order to help shape those rules.

But clearly, the company needs more accountability, and the wrist slaps it’s received in past are not doing the trick. Facebook is a monstrosity whose power is misunderstood even by the people who built it. It is helping to re-shape society in ways we could not have imagined 25 years ago. If we leave it up to Facebook to decide exactly how it’s reshaped, we will regret it.

History will be a harsh judge of our collective decision to give Facebook so much in return for vacation photos and news updates.

Publisher Luke Horton can be reached at luke.horton@dailyleader.com.