Facebook Is Losing Users' Trust, Tech Investor Says
NOEL KING, HOST:
There are calls today in the U.S. and in the U.K. to hold Facebook accountable for the misuse of millions of users' data. The data was misused by a company called Cambridge Analytica. British and American officials want Mark Zuckerberg to explain his company's role in what happened and to tell them how it's going to improve security. Now, this all hit Facebook's stock very hard yesterday. It plunged in trading. One of Facebook's original investors, Roger McNamee, is with us now. He's currently the managing director of Elevation Partners, and he was once a personal mentor to Mark Zuckerberg.
Good morning, Roger.
ROGER MCNAMEE: Good morning.
KING: So this news about Cambridge Analytica came as a shock to regulators and to Facebook users. Did it surprise you?
MCNAMEE: No, what surprised me was the scale of it. We're dealing with a situation where, in 2011, Facebook signed a consent decree with the U.S. government, with the Federal Trade Commission, in which it promised that it would not use any user data in a way that was not explicitly called out and approved by the user. And in 2014, when Cambridge Analytica got the data from a researcher in England who had signed up to do a study of Facebook users, Facebook was three years into that consent decree. And the way this deal worked, 270,000 people signed up to take this test...
MCNAMEE: ...Voluntarily, and gave their personal information. But what also happened is that the researcher was able to harvest data from 50 million people. And those people - all but the 270,000 who signed up for the test - did not give any permission. And in Facebook's case, they learned that the material was being used inappropriately in 2015 - so roughly a year after it happened. And they have not said a word to anyone since then. And that would appear to be a really huge breach of the consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission.
KING: You know, in the past couple of months, I know you've been very public with your criticism of Facebook and Zuckerberg. You said that the company's made itself and its users vulnerable to manipulation. Now, you had been talking about Russian influence in the 2016 elections. Do you think the same dynamic is at play now with Cambridge Analytica?
MCNAMEE: It's a different play. In this case, the issue is a callous disregard for the privacy rights of users and a lack of care with respect to data that had been entrusted to Facebook. And I think that is the core of this issue. With the Russian issue, the challenge there is that the architecture of Facebook allows manipulation of users by bad actors who use the same tools designed for advertisers.
KING: All right, let's talk about this callous lack of care. You are an early mentor of Mark Zuckerberg's. You've said that you reached out to him directly in 2016, and you warned him about the possibility of these kinds of problems. What did he say to you?
MCNAMEE: He couldn't have been more polite. He and Sheryl Sandberg both responded to me right away. I sent an email with an op-ed that I had written but never published. And what I was saying to them is, guys, I'm not sure exactly what's going on here, but I'm afraid there is a systemic problem with the algorithms and the business model of Facebook that allow bad actors to cause harm to innocent users of Facebook. And I gave them four different examples - you know, not only election-related things but also things like in Housing and Urban Development, they had cited Facebook for advertising tools that allowed discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
KING: Roger, just because we're short on time, I want to ask you - so you sent them this op-ed. You say, guys, there are some real problems here. What do they say back?
MCNAMEE: They came back and said, Roger, we think these are isolated. It's not systemic. And by the way, we're a platform, not a media company. So we're not responsible for what third parties do on our platform.
KING: So polite but dismissive?
MCNAMEE: Well, they treated it like a public relations problem rather than like a business problem. And I continued to push for three months, privately, without saying a word to anyone. And then for another six months, I just did analysis so I could understand the issue and then - but they never responded. They never wanted to engage on the issue.
KING: Mark Zuckerberg is essentially ignoring your calls to take responsibility for his company's actions. You were his mentor. Are you disappointed in him?
MCNAMEE: I'm immensely disappointed, both in Mark and in Sheryl Sandberg. I really can't understand why this is so hard for them to understand. We're talking about democracy - not just in the United States, but around the world. And we're talking about treating users like human beings as opposed to, like, the fuel for a business that generates profits. And in my mind, this is a character test. And they're having a really hard time with it.
KING: All right, Roger, you're on Facebook. I'm on Facebook. What tips do you have for people who want to protect their privacy on Facebook - protect their data on Facebook?
MCNAMEE: There are actually two things people can do this year. The first is be much more careful with the kinds of things you share. But the second thing - and I think this is really important - is to remember that the campaign that the Russians attempted and that others will attempt during this election cycle are all about suppressing the vote. So if each of us goes out and votes this year and every election in the future, that will help to reduce the impact of interference.
KING: Roger McNamee, thank you so much.
MCNAMEE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.