Facebook Grapples With Another Privacy Scandal
NOEL KING, HOST:
Facebook has drawn a lot of criticism for failing to protect the privacy of its users. And then yesterday, The New York Times reported in great detail about how Facebook gave other giant companies access to its users' data. Those companies include Microsoft, Amazon and Yahoo. Some of them reportedly even had access to users' private messages. So what does all of this mean for Facebook? And possibly as important, what should it mean for Facebook? Anand Giridharadas is with me now. He wrote the book "Winners Take All: The Elite Charade Of Changing The World." Good morning, Anand.
ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Good morning.
KING: So is it fair to say right off the bat that you have been critical of Facebook and other big corporations?
GIRIDHARADAS: That is fair.
KING: OK (laughter). We'll go from there. Facebook has misused user data before. I mean, we've seen these stories break several times over the past couple of years, and it often feels like nothing happens. Why does this company seem immune from repercussions?
GIRIDHARADAS: I think it's because we haven't actually figured out how to claim our power as a public to do something about this. You know, this week, as yet another revelation spilled out - and this one, in many ways, I think, was a Rubicon for a lot of people. I mean, this is private messages...
GIRIDHARADAS: ...Being read by other companies. And yet the dominant response that I witnessed was a kind of delete Facebook campaign, which you've seen in the past. And at one level, this is emotionally satisfying. And it's sort of maybe fun to delete the app.
GIRIDHARADAS: But I think part of why we are unable to solve it, as you ask, is because when you delete Facebook as an individual, you are personalizing what is, in fact, an issue of systems and the abuse of power. And this cannot be solved, in my view, by individual action and kind of personal fortitude.
KING: That's interesting. You're saying this is not about personal responsibility, as many people would argue. It's about something bigger than that. So when we get to the bigger than that, let's talk about what direction you'd like to see this go in. What specific changes would you want to see either to protect user data or simply to regulate a company like Facebook?
GIRIDHARADAS: There are two major areas of change when you look at Facebook. One - we need a privacy law that actually deals with the reality of what these companies have now been doing time and again. You know, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg and their squad have revealed themselves to be, you know, stewards of our privacy that we don't need. And so there needs to be just privacy protection. The second is the revival of antitrust in American life. This is a predatory monopoly. You don't - if you want to go online and, you know, look for, you know, high school sweethearts to feel nostalgic about, there is no other option besides Facebook and all the other things we do on Facebook.
KING: We should say. We should be clear. The question of whether or not Facebook is a monopoly - I mean, you could put two economists into the room - into a room and get a fistfight, right? That isn't...
KING: That isn't yet really agreed upon.
GIRIDHARADAS: It might be a weak fistfight, but it would be a fistfight.
GIRIDHARADAS: But I think...
KING: Go ahead.
GIRIDHARADAS: ...When it comes to these - the reason - whether it's privacy or antitrust or other things, what I'm talking about are legal fixes, you know? And I think it's worth thinking about analogies here. When you think about the predatory power of big food, and big sugar specifically, I think we've now learned that, you know, all of us trying to diet harder is no match for their political power. When we think about, you know, the opioid crisis and the people who promoted OxyContin, people individually fighting the demons of addiction is no match for that power. When you think about, you know, the Koch brothers and the deregulation agenda around pollution, you buying better paper towels and doing homework on which rivers are safe for your kids to swim in is no match for that political power.
And I think, by the way, when you think about Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and her advice to women - as Michelle Obama recently reminded us, you know, women simply leaning in and raising their hand higher is actually no match for thousands of years of oppressive patriarchy. So this company is actually part of this larger narrative that plutocrats and big corporations have been spreading in American life, which is that abusive behavior by the powerful is, in fact, your problem to solve as an individual.
KING: You're arguing that it should be the problem of lawmakers who regulate things. Just briefly, Anand, why hasn't - why haven't lawmakers done it? I mean, Facebook's gone before Congress. What's going on? Where's the disconnect?
GIRIDHARADAS: I mean, let's be real. We have a grandpa/grandma Congress that is unable to understand the apps that now shape the modern world as is evident every time we have these hearings. And one of the most important things we need to do is bring the age of Congress into line with the age of this country. Also, these companies present new legal issues because we are - they are conveniences for us that we love and yet are abusing us. And so we need a new legal framework. And I - there are members of Congress out there who are smart and thinking about this. And we need to support their efforts to solve this through the law.
KING: Anand Giridharadas wrote the book "Winners Take All."
GIRIDHARADAS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.