Facebook’s Problem is a Data-Ownership Problem

Apr 20, 2018


Article ImageAfter more than 20 hours of Congressional testimony, it was Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that asked the right question to Mark Zuckerberg: “I think what we're getting to here is, who owns the virtual you? Who owns your presence online?” Zuckerberg’s response—“I believe that everyone owns their own content online…[that’s] the first line of our terms of service…”— is the lie we’ve been told to believe. But as recent weeks have unveiled, we, in fact, have no ownership over our virtual selves at all.

Rep. Blackburn’s question about control of the virtual-self hits at the epicenter of our Facebook problem: regaining personal control of our virtual identities is the answer to data privacy. Only when my real world-self owns my virtual-self can I truly have the benefit of data privacy and set both the boundaries and price for its use. This is achievable today, and it will be the largest disruption in the history of digital advertising.

In the past three years, Facebook has dominated digital advertising, gobbling up (along with Google) almost 100% of new money inflows to digital platforms. The primary reason for this influx is that advertisers consistently see a better return on investment on these platforms. It is true, Facebook and Google work for advertisers. Returns are high and reach is virtually unlimited. As a result, they have produced outsized profits. The reason for their performance is simple: they are cheating. It’s a secret the digital advertising industry, including myself, have known for years.

We all have a real-world identity. This is the self that owns a house, leases a car, buys groceries, goes to work, and enjoys the fruits of her labor. We also have a virtual identity, which is the dataset that comprises us individually in the online world. That virtual identity is a valuable asset that, unfortunately, most of us don’t own or control. By simply surfing the web, or clicking on an ad, we are surrendering numerous data points that are used to reach us on subsequent websites, determine which ads we see, determine what content comes in front of us; it pretty much dictates our entire online experience.

Facebook has unprecedented access to this personal information, whether through the News Feed, email, or search history. Although they profess the protection of personal data, it’s clear they are violating their promise. Facebook has built and published APIs allowing third parties to dive so deep into an individual’s privacy that they can affect elections. Do you really think you’d even know what Cambridge Analytica was if it weren’t for a whistleblower?

I downloaded the personal data Facebook now made available, and many of you likely did as well. It was exactly what I expected: a long file of every picture, post, chat, whatever that I have had, peppered with a bunch of stuff that wasn’t even mine. In the end, the download told me nothing. What I want to know is who accessed my data and how did they use it? Where were my connections targeted and by whom? What did advertisers understand about my needs and wants based on their access? No matter how deep you look you won’t find this data, ever. Why? Because you don’t own it.

Right now our virtual-self, in this case, is owned by Facebook. Does Zuckerberg have any interest in giving up that ownership? Of course not. No more so than a landlord has interest in giving a tenant more benefits without higher rent. He had 15.9 billion reasons not to in 2017 alone.

Today, we can make a shift to address this problem. We can change the advertising paradigm by not only regaining ownership of our virtual selves by our real-world selves but also by providing an open ledger solution that shows where and how our data is used. Blockchain makes this possible, even in its infancy. The technology exists to allow an individual to set boundaries on their virtual-self, set the price for advertisers to access it and share in the exchange of value in real real-world. The underlying blockchain technology is rapidly developing and the capabilities it has for furthering this mission are only getting more robust.

The time is now to drive change. Our elected officials are trying to force this and their lack of clear understanding of what really happens in the digital world will hamper their success. Laws such as GDPR are a great beginning but not a real solution. Letting a government control how a company uses my property (my data) doesn’t even make sense when you say it out loud. Only by giving ownership of the virtual-self to each respective individual can we truly see data privacy and equitable participation.


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