Impeachment may be dominating the airwaves, but Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg was on Capitol Hill this week to talk about his company’s plans to expand into its own currency, called Libra.
That’s right, the company that has already paid an unprecedented $5 billion fine for mishandling the private data of billions of users now wants to oversee to your banking transactions, too.
It’s a bad idea, and, judging from the skepticism expressed by 60 lawmakers on Wednesday, the uneasiness is bipartisan.
There is good reason to be concerned. Facebook repeatedly has demonstrated they are not trustworthy when it comes to managing the private data of billions of its users. From retaining data on their servers after users delete it, to allowing employees access to the personal data of users, tracking user phone calls and text messages, to baseline procedures like failing to encrypt user passwords, Facebook is an irresponsible actor, to say the least.
But now, they want us to trust them with our financial data. That they will manage. From…Switzerland.
Sure, nothing about this sounds at all like a dystopian novel featuring corporate computing overlords, destined to go terribly, terribly wrong.
Libra (a.k.a. the Zuck Buck)
Libra, Facebook’s proposed currency, is referred to casually as a cryptocurrency—the class of currencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and others. But there are significant and important distinctions.
Fundamentally cryptocurrencies are disruptive to the currency markets because they are user driven, private, decentralized, and permissionless. Anyone can use them, and there is no central authority monitoring or controlling the process. For those who want to put cracks in the monolithic control of the Federal Reserve, cryptocurrency has been revolutionary for consumer choice, as well as privacy.
Libra, as proposed by Facebook, is none of these things. Where cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin generate their own value, Libra would be linked to a collection of currencies, including the U.S. dollar and the Euro.
But more importantly, Libra is not decentralized like other cryptocurrencies. Rather, Facebook controls access to it, and administration of it. They can also see all your transaction data—what you buy, where you buy it and when, and how much you spend on everything from groceries, to donations, to doctor’s visits.
According to Zuckerberg, all of this data will make Facebook even more money by way of its cash cow—targeted advertising.
That, in and of itself, may seem innocent enough. But it’s what Facebook does with all that data that has regulators and lawmakers concerned. Including the aforementioned sins, Facebook has also allowed access to the private data of its billion-plus users to third parties. The company also tracks its users across the internet, even when they’re not logged into their Facebook accounts.
Questioning Big Tech
It raises the question—as it relates to Facebook, but also Big Tech more generally—of how much control they have over our lives. It is increasingly becoming the case that the technology that was supposed to liberate us from the government has ended up subjecting us to a handful of corporations who want to control everything from our speech, to the information we see, to what we buy and when.
This is a development worth discussing.
Big Tech, and Facebook in particular, are no longer dorm room startups. They are supra-national corporations that are competitor-less platforms for global discourse. 68 percent of people get their news from social media, and increasingly, it is becoming a primary means of communication. Big Tech now has unprecedented amounts of power over what information we see, what we say and who sees it, and they know more about us than any other companies ever have known.
Those on the Right who simply shrug and say, “Well, don’t use these services, then!”—or that they are private companies and shouldn’t be subject to regulation—are completely missing the point. The market dominance of Big Tech has removed the ability to opt-out. You may not be on Facebook, but Facebook has data on you. Google is tracking you across the web. And Amazon owns half the internet.
Good luck eliminating Big Tech from your life. Like it or not, and whether you choose to be or not, we are all money-making commodities for the Silicon Valley overlords. And in the end, we may decide that it’s a fair exchange given the convenience and hyper-personalization that these services provide. But we should be the ones making this decision—not the demigods of Silicon Valley.