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Editorial: Facebook is begging for an intervention

Facebook has made a couple of things abundantly clear: One, nothing is free and, two, we are the product. For that, and for a growing list of personal information violations, calls for greater oversight must be considered. It’s not ideal, but Facebook’s reckless conduct all but invites it.

The social media forerunner’s quest for dominance knows no bounds, even if that means bending reality by telling users that the company has never “sold” its user data. No, it just gave it away under the suspicious guise of alliances with a number of partner companies, such as Microsoft, Amazon and Spotify, among others, allowing some partners access without users’ permission.

The New York Times exposed this latest indignity in a recent investigative report. Turns out, for years Facebook handed over to some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data that it ever admitted.

The so-called special arrangements were ferreted out by the newspaper and detailed and hundreds of pages of Facebook documents. Indeed, the records generated in 2017 of the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships illuminated the company’s abusive data sharing practices.

Barbara Underwood, the New York attorney general, said her office would look into the arrangements as part of a continuing investigation into the company.

Most of us are not naive. At some level, there’s an intrinsic understanding that the family pictures, the snapshots of breakfast, lunch and dinner dishes, vacation photos and videos have been stored on a server not belonging to the individual. But one would like to believe that the privacy settings and agreement entered into by the user and company would be respected. Facebook’s practice of exchanging users’ information should never have happened and when CEO Mark Zuckerberg promised in 2010 that the practice had ended, the company should have been required to prove it.

Facebook has 2.2 billion users and yet the company exists with very little oversight, as if it is still some Harvard campus experiment. It’s not. Facebook is part of the societal DNA, making it an attractive, too tempting tool for nefarious purposes, whether individuals are governments. But there is also so much good that the platform offers in connecting families, friends, lost loves, groups and causes dedicated to the common good.

Few users could have contemplated the extent to which Facebook opted to share this vast personal data with partners of its own choosing.

As the Times reported, this exchange was intended to benefit everyone, including Facebook which thirsted for more users and advertising revenue. Partner companies acquired some cool features. Facebook users connected with friends across various devices and websites.

Contrast that to reports the Microsoft’s Bing search engine was allowed to view the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent. Or, that Netflix and Spotify gained the ability to read Facebook users’ private messages. Amazon could obtain users’ names and contact information through their friends, and Yahoo had the ability “to view streams of friends’ posts as recently as this summer, despite public statements that it had stopped that type of sharing years earlier,” according to the Times.

Facebook has been on the defensive since March’s news that a political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica improperly used Facebook’s data to build tools that aided President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Zuckerberg may hope to assure lawmakers and the public that the company has “complete control” over all things shared on Facebook but that statement is proving untrue. No one wants to hit the delete button on the social media giant but the temptation is growing.

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