Under fire for failing to protect users, 2018 was a losing year for Facebook
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For US tech titans, 2018 was characterised more by scandal than by cutting-edge innovation. Facebook fell into particular disrepute, criticised for its failings on user privacy in a series of scandals that revealed the limits of its business model.
At the start of the year Facebook executives could have been forgiven for thinking that the worst was over. In 2017, the social media giant was shaken by accusations that it had been weaponised by Russian agents to help put Donald Trump in the White House. But then in March 2018, the Cambridge Analytica scandal shook Facebook to its core.
In 2014, this British data analysis company got its hands on the personal information of more than 80 million Facebook users, before using it in very well-targeted political propaganda campaigns in favour of such causes as Brexit and the election of Trump.
Initially, it seemed that Facebook was the victim of Cambridge Analytica’s villainy. However, it soon became apparent that the British company could not have harvested the data on such a massive scale if the Silicon Valley company hadn’t been so lax in protecting its users’ privacy.
In response, the parliaments of four countries asked Zuckerberg to testify. He and his lieutenants then went on an “apology tour” in which they took responsibility for some of the criticisms levelled at Facebook. For example, the company’s executives admitted that they had not done enough to stop people in Myanmar from using the site as a platform to spread messages calling for the persecution of Rohingyas.
Despite such expressions of contrition, Facebook share price has fallen by 30 percent since March, clearly showing financial markets have lost confidence in the future of the brand.
The crisis that hit Facebook snowballed into a deep suspicion of all online networks. It spread to numerous tech firms that rely on providing users with a free service while making money from collecting their personal data to be used for targeted advertising.
Like Zuckerberg, who faced a Congressional hearing in April, Jack Dorsey (Twitter's CEO) and Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google) were summoned to be grilled by US lawmakers in September and December, respectively. Politicians’ biggest concerns were that these companies did not do enough to protect user privacy and and ignored the dissemination of “fake news”.
Consequently, the former Silicon Valley star soon saw other technology firms condemn its practises. For example, the founders of WhatsApp and Instagram – popular social media networks that Facebook bought for a song – resigned, lambasting what they saw as the lack of regard for protection of personal data.
In November, an internal report obtained by the Wall Street Journal found that only a small majority of Facebook’s employees were optimistic about the company’s future, compared to more than 80 percent in 2017.
The same month, a Google employee published an open letter calling for executives to abandon plans for a special Chinese version of the search engine, tailored to the demands of Communist Party censorship.
Analysts say that such internal revolt is unprecedented in Silicon Valley and was unimaginable just a year ago. The leaders of Facebook and its fellow tech behemoths can try to reassure themselves by saying that 2019 couldn’t be any worse. But for Zuckerberg’s social network, it does not augur well that, at least in the United States, Facebook has not seen any increase in daily visits since the end of 2017.
This article was adapted from the original in French.