Critics say Facebook's latest scandals show it lacks an 'ethical road map'

Pressure mounts on lawmakers and government agencies to regulate the tech industry.

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3 min read
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Internal Facebook emails and documents were released by the UK Parliament on Wednesday. 

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Facebook is no stranger to weathering the storm when it comes to dealing with controversy.

But as revelations surfaced Wednesday about how the tech firm leveraged the personal data of its users, government agencies and lawmakers are facing more pressure to rein in the power that the world's largest social network holds.

"All these scandals and controversies build the case that something needs to be done," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. "Facebook's management fumbling is creating a worldwide call to regulate the industry."

Internal Facebook emails and documents released by the UK Parliament on Wednesday gave the public a closer look at how the company thinks about data and advertisers. Facebook denied that it sells user data, but the documents show it considered charging developers for access to its platform. Facebook's decision to cut off Twitter-owned Vine's data access also raised concerns about whether the company could be stifling competition.

In response, Facebook noted that the 250 pages of documents were tied to a lawsuit and tell only one side of the story.

That controversy over the email dump is compounded by other recent scandals, Chester said. That includes Facebook's acknowledgement that COO Sheryl Sandberg asked her staff to look into the finances of billionaire George Soros, who called companies like Facebook and Google a "menace" in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. From data privacy to election interference, Facebook's problems have been chipping away at user trust.

"They don't have a real ethical road map here," Chester said.

Watch this: Zuckerberg defends actions after New York Times investigation

Jennifer Grygiel, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who studies social media, said Facebook is still asking a lot from the public, given its recent track record.

"We need to take this as a piece of information in the larger grand scheme of things that have come out about Facebook over the last couple of years," she said.

While the company's latest controversy could make users think twice about how much personal information they share on Facebook, the company's controversies haven't made a huge dent in its business or user numbers.

Nearly 2.3 billion people use Facebook every month. The social network has become a large part of how people keep in touch with their families and friends, sell products or promote their businesses. Experts don't see that changing anytime soon.

"There is no level of scandal that can get advertisers to pull, unless the target audience abandons the platform," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities.

Some US lawmakers are urging the Federal Trade Commission, a consumer watchdog, to take more aggressive action against Facebook.

"There is mounting evidence that Facebook acted chaotically, recklessly and lawlessly by granting access to private consumer data for financial gain," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, said in a statement.

Blumenthal said the recent documents show Facebook violated a 2011 agreement it had with FTC to protect user data. The agency, which is already investigating the company for its privacy practices, could slap Facebook with a hefty fine. The FTC declined to comment.

"The FTC must act decisively and vigorously to end this consistent pattern of negligence and disregard for consumer privacy and legal orders," Blumenthal said.

Another possibility is that the House of Representatives could issue subpoenas when the Democrats take control next month, said Chester. He also expects state attorneys general to investigate.

But for the user, the power to act may already be in their hands.

"We have a personal responsibility for what we put on [Facebook], and we should have a low expectation of privacy," Pachter said. "And we should expect that if we put something on there for all of our friends to see, that the whole world's going to see it."

Originally published Dec. 6, 5 a.m. PT
Update, 9:45 a.m. PT: Adds response from FTC.

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