Facebook Libra

In a new trend, Facebook managed to garner more negative attention than President Donald Trump last week. True or False?

While the correct answer is “false,” the social network has certainly been getting pummeled recently, so much so that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the coverage of CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s support of Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy for president, and the myriad concerns about that. Then there was that well-earned uproar about the company’s decision to run political ads with content known to be false and/or misleading.

Never one to pass on a chance to make negative publicity worse, the fearless social network founder defended his company’s “hands-off fake news” policy as a free speech issue, trying to argue an affinity with the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let’s just say, the move was poorly received by many. Dr. King’s daughter said that fake news contributed to the atmosphere that got her father assassinated.

What got less attention–but is arguably bigger news–was the exodus of several high-profile members from Facebook’s cryptocurrency initiative. Facebook’s Libra didn’t need this to be a heavy lift–in fact it was banking on it being relatively easy. But then, PayPal withdrew from the project in early October. It was soon followed by eBay, Stripe, Visa, and Mastercard, among others.

While the essence of their statements as to why they were abandoning Libra was basically “let’s wait and see,” it’s not much of a leap to assume that these organizations came around to what consumers and regulators alike already knew: Facebook as a company has too much baggage and too little credibility when it comes to security and privacy to be trusted with something like cryptocurrency.

On the face of it, Libra is an interesting if not an utterly compelling idea. It improves upon many of the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of more established cryptocurrencies, and its stated goal of providing developing nations with broader access to financial systems is commendable. It represents the kind of moonshot thinking that put Silicon Valley on the map, and most likely would have been greeted with widespread enthusiasm a decade ago when Facebook had not yet become the digital equivalent of the Empire’s Death Star.

But that was then. The “now” for Facebook, with its constant privacy gaffes and the endless news about data breaches, data leaks, and industry-wide abuses of privacy, is that the public has become considerably more circumspect when it comes to the promises of new technology–and rightly so.

Facebook’s attempt to mitigate this perception is one of the reasons the company tried to bring several companies without Cambridge Analytica-sized holes in their reputations onto Libra’s board for its launch.

Privacy and Security Are No Longer Optional

When it comes to privacy and data security, the honeymoon period for tech companies seems to be pretty much over. Consumers and regulators are increasingly asking questions about how, why, and by whom their data is being shared and monetized.

Cybersecurity is increasingly viewed as a bottom line issue with the average cost of a data breach increasing with each passing year. The news of our growing state of cyber insecurity is everywhere. Recently, Moody’s decided to add a “credit negative” event note to Pitney-Bowes after a ransomware attack disabled some of the company’s services. Consequences will become more commonplace in the future, and that’s partly to blame for the exodus from Libra.

While Facebook is by no means alone in the difficulties it faces in navigating greater cyber expectations, it is arguably the poster child of privacy depredation.  It would be hard to find a company with a comparable number of gaffessecurity issues, and evidence of an overarching willingness to violate user privacy and trust for short-term profit.

Facebook’s decision to abdicate any fact-checking responsibility in the 2020 elections after being a keystone for Russian election interference in 2016 is proof positive that it still hasn’t caught up to the barest minimum of expectations, and it has rightfully sent its Libra partners running for the hills.

The lesson here is a straightforward one: when it comes to privacy and security, your reputation matters. Internet companies are experiencing their Unsafe at Any Speed moment where consumers are less interested in how shiny a product is than where the seatbelts are. Facebook is learning (maybe) a hard lesson that all businesses need to understand, namely that responsible stewardship of user data matters.