In the wake of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica debacle, we’re hearing a lot of new and interesting ideas about how to solve the so-called Facebook problem: Let’s classify Facebook as a monopoly and break it up. Let’s declare it a public utility and regulate it like electricity or phone service. Let’s force Facebook to reveal exactly how its algorithm works so there’s greater transparency and accountability.
The ease with which Cambridge Analytica was able to harvest and exploit Facebook user data is indeed highly disturbing. However, some context and pragmatism are in order. First, Facebook is hardly the only company that develops detailed profiles about consumers and uses them—or allows them to be used—for commercial and political targeting. This has been going on for years, across a multitude of industries. The current scandal merely pulled back the curtain on a common practice that industry doesn’t like to talk about.