Facebook’s privacy conundrum

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has to do something about his firm’s reputation for data privacy, but it could it require destroying its own core business model.

At the F8 developer conference this week, Zuckerberg has been making claims no-one is surprised to hear. Facebook is all about user privacy, its not about making money anymore, just about offering a service its users care about. The PR machine is shifting through the gears, Facebook has to save its reputation before it’s too late.

This is perhaps the worst kept secret in Silicon Valley; Facebook does not care about data privacy, or at least it hasn’t cared in the past. It cares it was caught flamboyantly prancing around, above and all over the concept, but few will be surprised executives prioritized profits over privacy.

But here is the crossroads the firm faces; be disrupted or destroyed.

This of course sounds very dramatic, and perhaps we are taking poetic licence, but there is at least an element of accuracy to the statement. Zuckerberg needs to fundamentally redefine the business, moving away from the tried and tested business model, before regulators and legislators take Facebook out at the knees.

At the conference, Zuckerberg has been outlining Facebook’s journey forward. Updates will focus on creating a more ‘private’ experience, ushering users towards groups and chat locations which, theoretically, will prevent Facebook from fuelling its data machine. It seems the new business will be focused around two of the companies most popular applications, Messenger and WhatsApp, though this could potentially kill the tried and tested Facebook business model; hyper-targeted advertising.

One example of this is an update which will allow users to invite connections to watch videos in a private message or group. In years gone, this would be sacrilege to Facebook executives. If it is private, how can it be used to tune the advertising machine? Where is the opportunity to make money?

This is the risk Facebook is facing up to; its traditional business model is under threat. Its reputation for handling privacy is in tatters and the world is turning against Facebook. If it continues on the path of collecting and harvesting data in this manner, someone will eventually step in and stop it. Governments and regulators are cracking down on the data sharing economy, and Facebook has been made enemy number one.

But all is not lost. Facebook still has a couple of tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, the core social media platform is salvageable. It might look like a digital Yellow Pages today, but it by-gone years, it was a genuinely engaging platform. Somewhere along the line executives got grabby and started prioritising advertising over engagement, and the platform suffered as a result. If Facebook can rediscover the magic of old, all will be forgiven, such is the short-term memory of many consumers.

This might mean having to sacrifice the hyper-targeted advertising model, but if Zuckerberg’s claims on privacy are to be believed, Facebook might be moving away from it anyway.

Fortunately, with a reinvigorated platform, which people trust and enjoy, Facebook can bolt services on and beside it, as opposed to through it. This is perfectly feasible business model; running the platform as a loss-leader, maintaining a more transparent advertising business and also using the credibility to monetize premium services. And it might be a sensible direction for Facebook to go. It has worked before and will work again.

To make this idea work, Facebook will need a few things. Firstly, the ambition to explore news ideas. Secondly, smart people. And finally, R&D funds. Facebook has all these things in abundance.

Facebook has already shown its ambition with the launch of AR/VR, video platforms, online market places, dating applications and enterprise services (just to name a few). It has and will continue to attract some of the worlds most intelligent engineers and business people. And finally, Facebook has bags of cash.

This of course is taking Zuckerberg at his word. This might be nothing more than a ploy to generate positive PR. The hyper-targeting advertising model might simply be evolving with the help of small print and clever distractions. But, Zuckerberg surely is smarter than this. Another case of misleading the general public would surely be a step too far.

Zuckerberg might be waking up to the fact he cannot hide from this horrid and distasteful reputation he and his firm has developed. Perhaps Facebook has realised it needs to fundamentally change its business model. Maybe Zuckerberg wants to disrupt his own business before governments and regulators try to destroy it.

If 52% don’t understand data-sharing economy, is opt-in redundant?

Nieman Lab has unveiled the results of research suggesting more than half of adults do not realise Google is collecting and storing personal data through usage of its platforms.

The research itself is quite shocking and outlines a serious issue as we stride deeper into the digital economy. If the general population does not understand the basic principles behind the data-sharing economy, how are they possibly going to protect themselves against the nefarious intentions from the darker corners of the virtual world?

You also have to question whether there is any point in the internet players seeking consent if the user does not understand what he/she is signing up for.

According to the research, 52% of the survey respondents do not expect Google to collect data about a person’s activities when using its platforms, such as search engines or YouTube, while 57% do not believe Google is tracking their web activity in order to create more tailored advertisements.

While most working in the TMT industry would assume the business models of the Google and the other internet are common knowledge, the data here suggests otherwise.

66% also do not realise Google will have access to personal data when using non-Google apps, while 64% are unaware third-party information will be used to enhance the accuracy of adverts served on the Google platforms. Surprisingly, only 57% of the survey respondents realise Google will merge the data collected on each of its own platforms to create profiles of users.

Although this survey has been focused on Google, it would be fair to assume the same respondents do not appreciate this is how many newly emerging companies are fuelling their spreadsheets. The data-sharing economy is the very reason many of the services we enjoy today are free, though if users are not aware of how this segment functions, you have to question whether Google and the other internet giants are doing their jobs.

The ideas of opt-in and consent are critically important nowadays. New rules in the European Union, GDPR, set about significant changes to dictate how companies collect, store and use personal information collected by the service providers. These rules were supposed to enforce transparency and encourage the user to be in control of their personal information, though this research does not offer much encouragement.

If the research suggests more than half of adults do not understand how Google collects personal information or uses it to enhance its own advertising capabilities, what is the point of the opt-in process in the first place?

Reports like this suggest the opt-in process is largely meaningless as users do not understand what they are giving the likes of Google permission to do. The blame for this lack of education is split between the internet giants, who have become experts at muddying the waters, and the users themselves.

Those who use the services for free but do not question the continued existence of ‘free’ platforms should forgo the right to be annoyed when scandals emerge. Not taking the time to understand, or at least attempt to, the intricacies of the data-sharing economy is the reason many of these scandals emerge in the first place; users have been blindly handing power to the internet giants.

The internet players need to do more to educate the world on their business models, however the user does have to take some of the responsibility. We’re not suggesting everyone becomes an internet economy expert, but gaining a basic understanding is not incredibly difficult. However, it does seem ignorance is bliss.

Google investors slightly spooked by free-spending execs

Revenues might well be booming again at Google, but it seems shareholders are slightly concerned by increased costs, which is one of the fastest growing columns in the spreadsheet.

Looking at the final quarter, revenues stood at $39.3 billion, up 22% year-on-year, though traffic acquisition costs (TAC), what Google pays to make sure it is the dominant search engine across all platforms, operating systems and devices, were up by over $1 billion. Cost-per-click on Google properties were also down. A glimmering ray of sunshine was higher-than-expected seasonal growth for premium YouTube products and services.

Total revenues for 12 months ending December 31 stood at $136.8 billion, up 23% over 2017, while net income was back up to the levels which one would expect at Google, raking in $30.7 billion. The company is not growing as quickly as it used to, while expenses are starting to stack up. Investors clearly aren’t the happiest of bunnies as share price declined 3.1% in overnight trading.

“Operating expenses were $13.2 billion, up 27% year-over-year,” said Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat. “The biggest increase was in R&D expenses, with the larger driver being headcount growth, followed by the accrual of compensation expenses to reflect increases in the valuation of equity in certain Other Bets.

“Growth in Sales and marketing expenses reflect increases in sales and marketing headcount primarily for Cloud and Ads followed by advertising investments mainly in Search and the Assistant.”

Headcount by the end of the last period was up by more than 18,000 employees to 98,771. While CEO Sundar Pichai was keen to point out the business is continuing to invest in improving its core search product, diversification efforts into areas such as the smart speaker market, cloud and artificial intelligence are hitting home. Perhaps investors have forgotten what it’s like to search for the next big idea.

For years, Google plundering the bank accounts with little profit to offer. These days are a long-distant memory, but it is the same for every business which is targeting astronomical growth. You have to perfect the product and then scale. A dip in share price perhaps indicates shareholders have forgotten this concept, but Google is doing the right thing for everyone involved.

Some businesses search for differentiation and diversification when they have to, some do it because they have ambition to remain on top. Those who are searching because they have to are most likely reporting static or declining numbers each month and did not have the vision to see the good days would not last forever. Google is pumping cash into the next idea so when growth in its core business starts to flatten, something else can pick up the slack and pull the business towards more astronomical growth.

This is what is so remarkable about the ‘other bets’ column on the spreadsheets. It might have costs growth every single year, as does the wider R&D column, but having graduated the cloud computing business and most recently Loon, there are businesses which will start to contribute more than they are detracting. This is a company which never sits still, and this is why it is one of the most admired organizations from an entrepreneurial perspective. Shareholders might do well remembering this every now and then.

Looking at joy around the world for the final quarter, US revenues were $18.7 billion, up 21% year-over-year, while EMEA brought in $12.4 billion, up 20% and APAC accounted for $6.1 billion, up 29%. Revenues in LATAM were $2.2 billion, up 16% year-over-year. APAC and LATAM were subject to negative FX fluctuations, particularly in Australia, Brazil and Argentina.

In the specific business units, Google Sites revenues were $27 billion in the quarter, up 22%, with mobile collecting the lion’s share, though YouTube and Desktop contributing growth also. Cloud, Hardware and Play drove the growth in the ‘other’ revenues for Google, collecting $6.5 billion, up 31% year-over-year for the final quarter.

Although these diversification efforts are growing positively, there are also some risks to bear in mind. Firstly, the cloud computing business is losing pace with Microsoft and AWS. Google is making investments to attempt to buy its way through the chasm, but it will be tough going as both these businesses make positive steps forward also.

Secondly, some properties and developers are choosing to circumnavigate the Google Play Store, instead taking their titles direct to the consumer. This is only a minor segment of the pie for the moment and there will be a very small proportion of the total who actually have the footprint to do this (Fortnite for example), though it is a trend the team will want to keep an eye on. Perhaps the 30% commission Google charges developers will be reconsidered to stem dissenting ideas.

Finally, the data sharing economy which will sit behind the smart speaker and smart home ecosystem is facing a possible threat. Google will not make the desired billions from hardware sales, but it will from the operating systems and virtual assistant powering the devices. Collecting referral fees and connecting buyers with sellers is what Google does very well, though this business model might be under threat from new data protection and privacy regulations.

The final one is not just a challenge to the potential billions hidden between the cushions in the smart home’s virtual sofa, but the entire internet economy. GDPR complaints are currently being considered and potential consequences to how personal data is collected, processed and stored are already being considered. The Google lawyers will have to be on tip-top form to minimise the disruption to the business, and wider data sharing economy.

Costs might be up and while there are dark clouds on the horizon, Pichai and his executives are moving in the right direction. The lawyers can lesson the potential impact of regulation, but the exploration encouraged by the management team in the ‘other bets’ segment is what will fuel Google in the future. Costs should be controlled, but spending should also be encouraged.

UK Gov pulls back the curtain on Facebook data policies

With pressure mounting against Facebook over the last few months it was only a matter of time before a treasure trove of treachery was unveiled; the UK government has done just that.

Considering the breadth and depth of the information revealed by Damian Collins, a MP and Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and the likelihood this is only scratching the surface, it’ll be some time before we discover the full impact. But, the door has been opened. For Facebook, the PR machine will have to find another gear as this will take some battling.

“As we’ve said many times, Six4Three – creators of the Pikinis app – cherrypicked these documents from years ago as part of a lawsuit to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users,” Facebook said in a statement. “The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.”

Facebook is standing by changes made in 2014 which prevented developers seizing personal information of user’s friends, those who had not opted in. This is effectively the saga which kicked off the entire Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook argues Six4Three didn’t receive a temporary extension, allowing the app to continue operating while the changes were implemented, and the court case is manufactured revenge.

The Six4Three lawsuit is where Collins and his Committee managed to get their hands on the documents which have been unveiled here. Officials compelled Six4Three CEO Ted Kramer to hand over the documents while on a business trip to London. The documents were obtained as part of a legal discovery process brought about through Six4Three’s lawsuit against Facebook.

The documents are quite damning, suggesting Facebook used user personal information as a commodity, offering the team a useful bargaining chip to secure more attractive contracts, while also nipping any competitive threats before momentum was gathered. For Facebook, this should be considered a nightmare, and it seems investors agree. At the time of writing share price had dropped by 2.7% in overnight trading.

While these reports might not come as a surprise to those who work in the technology space, the general public are unlikely to find these reports very appealing. Facebook crafts an image of itself as a business which wants to help society, though these documents creates a perception of millionaires viewing the user as nothing more than a number, trading away information which doesn’t really belong to them. This idea will not be well-received by the general public.

Looking at the specifics of the documents, apps were invited to use Facebook just as long as it improved the Facebook brand, while some competitors were not allowed to use Facebook tools without the specific sign-off of CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself. One of these examples is Vine, which could be viewed as a means to obstruct rivals. Those who are legally-minded will know this could cause all sorts of problems for the social media giant.

Facebook has clearly recognised this is an issue as well. As part of its statement, Facebook has said it prevented apps which replicate the core functionality of its platform from reaping the full benefits, though it plans to remove this ‘out of date’ policy as soon as possible.

This is of course on concession Facebook is making, though there will have to be a hell of a lot more over the coming months. These documents are damning of the attitudes towards data privacy and also Facebook’s own policies. The lawmakers are sharpening their sticks and it won’t be long before they start taking more accurate aims at a firm which has done little to aid investigations, dodging meaningful questions like perfectly crafted PR ninjas.

One of the biggest recurring themes of the documents is the value which has been placed on data obtained through user’s friends. The idea of linking financial value to the developer’s ability to gain access to friend’s data is one of the key issues being raised by Collins. Some might suggest this goes against repeated statements from Facebook that it was unaware its platform was being abused.

This is the issue. Facebook has continually proclaimed its innocence, accepting criticisms that it should have done more, but ultimately the blame for abuse should be directed elsewhere. These documents suggest the social media giant was not only aware of the abuses but debated and understood the controversial nature. This does appear to be a complete contradiction of the firm’s previous stance.

Another example of this is an update made to changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user.

Perhaps this suggests a breach of trust during internal meetings and email exchanges, but it also damages the brand credibility of Facebook moving forwards. Facebook is in a hole right now, there’s no doubt about that.