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August 13, 2019 12:36 pm PDT

Interoperability and Privacy: Squaring the Circle

Last summer, we published a comprehensive look at the ways that Facebook could and should open up its data so that users could control their experience on the service, and to make it easier for competing services to thrive.

In the time since, Facebook has continued to be rocked by scandals: privacy breaches, livestreamed terrorist attacks, harassment, and more. At the same time, competition regulators, scholars and technologists have stepped up calls for Facebook to create and/or adopt interoperability standards to open up its messenger products (and others) to competitors.

To make matters more complex, there is an increasing appetite in both the USA and Europe, to hold Facebook and other online services directly accountable for the actions of its users: both in terms of what those users make available (copyright infringement, political extremism, incitements to violence, etc) and in how they treat each other (harassment, stalking, etc).

Fool me twice...

Facebook execs have complained that these goals are in conflict: they say that for the company to detect and block undesirable user behaviors as well as interdicting future Cambridge Analytica-style data-hijacking, they need to be able to observe and analyze everything every user does, both to train automated filters and to allow them to block abusers. But by allowing third parties to both inject data into their network and pull data out of it--that is, allowing interoperability--the company's ability to monitor and control its users' bad behavior will be weakened.

There is a good deal of truth to this, but buried in that truth is a critical (and highly debatable) assumption: "If you believe that Facebook has the will and ability to stop 2.3 billion people from abusing its systems and each other, then weakening Facebook's control over these 2.3 billion people might limit the company's ability to make that happen."

But if there's one thing we've learned from more than a decade of Facebook scandals, it's that there's little reason to believe that Facebook possesses the requisite will and capabilities. Read the rest

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