For all its vaunted idealism, Silicon Valley can be just as cynical as any other area of commerce. The tech companies set up to profit from spam and search-engine trickery are too numerous to count. But Facebook’s short history makes one thing clear: There has never been a tech company that built so much fortune from the exploitation of ordinary people while giving so little in return.
Yes, Microsoft was vilified – and rightly so – for crushing competitors and forcing customers into an inferior operating-system software, but its iron-fisted dominance helped shape an immature and inchoate computer-software industry into a single standard that made PCs everyday devices in offices and homes. Microsoft’s brutal strong-arm tactics were directed at rivals. Its sin against its customers was that its software, for decades, just wasn’t that good.
Facebook, by contrast, built the best social network of its time, so good it left rivals like MySpace in the dust. And that should have been enough to make Facebook a Silicon Valley success story. Once it came time to make money, Facebook exploited its users’ personal data to a degree that no company had ever achieved before.
Over the years, Facebook has curtailed some of its more blatantly exploitative practices, but only after a string of controversies forced its hand. It reluctantly let users control their privacy settings, and then it had to simplify those settings after many found them unnecessarily complex. (Some say they’re still too complex.)
Facebook also backed off changes in its terms of service that allowed it to license users’ data even after they left the site. But even now, regulators are objecting to Facebook’s insistence that users grant the company a “non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license” to any photo, video or passing thought they see fit to publish on the site. Facebook has not only redefined the social Web – it’s redefining the very definition of “sharing.”