• Carlton Mac


Who is the bigger liar?

Facebook: Is the company Trustworthy?

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook and dear friend to 100 million “real human people” has an announcement; “First just a reminder this is a good company, we do good things here like providing a public space to share news and information, but did you know sometimes people also like talking in private, weird but were here to serve you. If the world wants more private messaging Facebook will provide. Doing this is not easy by the way we're making huge sacrifices over here and you're not perfect. We've still got lots of work to do so don't blame us when we inevitably mess this up and don't expect any real tangible changes anytime soon now.”

If you're like most, you saw this headline: you yawned, chuckled or rolled your eyes and went back to watching a robot drive a robot across the desert in silence on YouTube. Many people think that's a mistake, the first part. Right now, three of the biggest companies on earth Facebook, Google and Apple are telling vastly different conflicting stories about your privacy. So who can you really trust? Marketing 101, every company is telling a story about who you are, who you should be and more specifically why 40 pounds of dehydrated marshmallows which double as a soft pillow filling material will help you become that person (Amazon)some stories are subtle others not and some can co-exist. Everyone loves a good Apple versus Google headline but the truth is, on the whole the two have probably been more symbiotic than competitive. One sells advertisements and the other screens through which to see them disproportionately bought by an advertiser's favorite demographic, young people with disposable income. Although this is kind of just an accident. A few years ago, Apple made it really easy to block ads on your iPhone which is a nice but not really worth shattering feature. For Google and the rest of the advertising industry they were less than ideal, I guess! The lesson is don't let 75% of your revenue come from a company with totally opposite priorities. The human was just crossing the street, but that's the end of the world for the ant. Today the only difference is that each company is much more actively trying to step on the other, with their mutually exclusive stories about collecting your data.

First, Google embraces it, arguing that you shouldn't just tolerate them using your data, you should want it. One because giving your phone more information makes it more useful. Your phone is your secretary and the more it knows about you, the more it can do for you. It's easy to say you value your privacy, people overwhelmingly do but then in practice do you really care that Google can read your email, if it means you can tell your phone to book a car and because it already knows when and where it automatically does it for you? People have certainly sold their data for a lot less. And two, because all this data, in aggregate makes these services better, cheaper and more accessible to say people in poverty. Critics argue these tools are really free; you just pay with data instead of dollars. Well, says Google, “if data has value, then donating it is charity, let Google see your photos and translate gets better at reading text which helps disadvantaged people navigate the world, really your hero”. Everything from Gmail to Chrome, Photos, Drive and Translate relies on collecting your data and thus convincing people of one or both of these stories.

Apple "Your iPhone not only doesn't need your private information to be useful, it doesn't even want it"

Apple meanwhile rejects the whole concept. Tim Cook argues that a fake trade-off designed to justify a business model where you are the product not the customer, not only does your iPhone not need your data to be useful it says it doesn't even want it. For Apple, storing your information is only a liability. Now whether you buy that logic or not you have to stop and admire its genius. Because if Google says your data is what allows it to sell cheaper products, then Apple can argue its higher prices are a feature. ‘You should feel good paying more for an iPhone because it's proof apple doesn't need to sell you out to advertisers. On the other hand, this argument is also harder to explain. While Tim Cook is busy waxing poetic about privacy Google just points to the price tag everyone wants to save money.

Finally, Facebook denies it. “The future is private'' it says. so, while the old website emphasized the news feed as an open, public place to talk, the town square is becoming more like a living room, now with the redesign it's all about private groups and communities. Notice by private it means exclusive or separate not necessarily your data stays between you and your device or you and the receiver, In other words it gets to capitalize on the buzzword like Cloud, AI or Blockchain before it without having to make any significant changes. Google, also announced something new the idea is that say you're typing a new acronym instead of sending that data to Google servers to determine whether it's a new word to add to its dictionary or just a typo your phone itself computes that locally this way your phone can make use of your data without Google the company being able to see it. It's similar to Apple's ‘Differential privacy’ with just as bad a name (Federated Learning). It's interesting because, A, unrelated to all these phones are getting so good that people don't feel the need to upgrade so often using the A12 chip on the iPhone 10s to send Snapchats is kind of like using a Ford super duty to hold your child's teddy bear. But when more work is being done on device rather than in the Cloud all that power is suddenly useful and B if Google can have its cake and eat it too give you both privacy and a better product than Apple just looks more expensive. That's why, these companies are so enthusiastic all the sudden about privacy, no one forced their hand so much and it gave them an opportunity.

The priorities of a growing company like Facebook in 2010 when it got caught sharing your private information are very different from those of an established dominant one like Facebook today. A growing company is much more willing to “move fast and break things” because that's what it takes. It is easy to do a bad thing, get big by doing it and then say look at us, are we cool for not doing that bad thing anymore? See Uber, it may be strategically smarter to fix the problem later than do the right thing all along. Facebook got where it is today by eating up your data but now it's an open question whether it really needs it anymore even if every Facebook message were encrypted tomorrow, it would still be able to show you relevant ads. How, because they had years to train those algorithms with the data, they now courageously encrypt so they get PR points for doing what they would have done anyway, try to draw back the kids these days who've left in favor of Instagram, Discord and Snapchat.

Facebook and Google have the same basic business model, selling tailored advertising. The difference is the latter provides a way more value so I can afford to be much more honest about the trade. So, are we saying don't trust Facebook? Yes! not because Mark Zuckerberg is evil, more like detached from reality. now don't get it wrong sometimes people like their CEO detached from reality. It's just that someone sober needs to trips its so things don't get out of control. Usually, we call that a board of directors but when the CEO has the power to appoint and fire board members, well that kind of defeats the purpose. The problem is Facebook has three kinds of shares; Class A, which are so generously offered for purchase to you and me come with one vote each, Class B,10 votes and Class C, come with no voting rights. Can you guess which kind Mark gives to charity? So, even though on paper Zuckerberg only owns about 28% of shares, he has about 53% of all the voting power, granting him majority control. Because of this Facebook's board of directors has as much power as North Korea’s government where Kim does all the thinking. Zuckerberg will be voted out right after Kim Jong-un loses an election.

So what about Apple, does it really care about your privacy? Personally, many hope not! Much better the reason they build “secure private product” is it they're financially incentivized to have good caring, trustworthy people retire, get fired and pass away but incentives we can trust. People who proclaim ‘Apple just wants your money!’ are missing the point. Who knows what Apple's true motivations are? whatever that means, but also who cares. Zuckrburg, one said “I think it's important that we don't all get Stockholm Syndrome and what the companies that work hard to charge you more convince you that they actually care more about you” and I agree billion-dollar companies tend to be kind of single-minded. So, follow the business model. The only thing you should trust is that a company will try to do what's in its best financial interest, so make sure it's at least kind of aligned with yours.

Whenever there is a big hack, Tim Cook will predictably do a few interviews about privacy trying to convince you that Apple's interests are most aligned with yours, with every update Google will try to do the same by giving you more features and more value in exchange for your data and Facebook will keep apologizing. Now it's just a question of whose story you buy. The surprising thing about Facebook is that it doesn't really need that much information to know who you are, asprobability explains a little bit of data has a lot of predictive power.

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