Facebook seems largely undaunted by its settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) that will oblige it to fork out the modest sum of $5 billion as a civil penalty as punishment for sharing users’ personal information. Caitlin Kelly and Fred Vogelstein, writing on this settlement for Wired, remind readers that $5 billion — though modest for Facebook — is a “record sum.” The average citizen of the US or any democracy might think that paying such a sum would ruin any company or drive its directors into a nervous breakdown, but Facebook and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, exist in a different universe from the citizens of any democracy.
Wired quotes FTC Commissioner Christine Wilson: “Millions of Americans entrusted personal information to Facebook with the understanding that Facebook would respect the laws governing consumer privacy, but Facebook’s many privacy missteps made clear that it lacked a culture of compliance in this area.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An attitude of respect for the letter of the law designed principally to test how far one can go in violating the spirit of the law
The FTC offered a revealing metaphor when it complained about “Facebook’s many privacy missteps.” A misstep, by definition, is a minor, unintentional error that disturbs normal progress. Calling Facebook’s deliberately abusive behavior — motivated by simple greed — a “misstep” sanctioned by a fine appears to be routine for government agencies such as the FTC. Even if Facebook doesn’t respect the law, the FTC respects Facebook’s ability to generate countless billions of dollars. Ordinary people might be tempted to use a stronger term, partly because when they fail to be compliant, they may end up actually doing time and the fines they pay will seriously affect their lifestyles.
According to the FTC, it wasn’t one misstep but “many,” which would seem to signify no less than three instances of missteps. In a normal courtroom, that would likely be called recidivism. And in the culture of compliance created by legislators in the 1990s, with their “three strikes” logic borrowed from baseball, the offender would be in prison for life. It’s true, however, that US financier Jeffrey Epstein, despite his proven skill at sex trafficking, had to spend 13 full days in jail for his missteps, possibly because the prosecutor believed that, at best, he was only a billionaire, rather than a multibillionaire — and maybe not even that, as we have subsequently learned.
When the authorities decide to investigate and punish multibillion-dollar companies for their crimes — whether it’s a bank like HSBC or a tech giant like Facebook — it only happens (if at all) years after the profit from the crimes has permitted those companies not only to prosper but to grow into virtual monopolies in captive markets that no longer need to cheat as much as in the past because, by that time, they have achieved global dominance in their marketplace.
In the Facebook case, the FTC offers another revealing metaphor: “It was clear that we needed to erect speed bumps requiring both Mr. Zuckerberg and Facebook to slow down and take care with consumer privacy.” The commission thus compares Facebook’s compromising millions of people’s privacy, with dire social and economic consequences for many anonymous “users” (it would be more appropriate to call them the “used” than “users”) to a speeding violation. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal described the settlement as a “fig leaf deal” that “releases Facebook without requiring any real privacy protections—no restraints on future data use, no accountability for top executives, nothing more than chump change financial fines.”
The FTC wants to see Facebook adopt a “culture of compliance,” which would seem to be the basic condition for any enterprise acting in the public sphere with the framework of a society governed by the “rule of law.” But what do they mean by compliance?
It would seem that even etymological dictionaries can’t agree on where the word comes from, which might give us some idea of what it should mean. For example, Online Etymology Dictionary defines “comply” as something positive and active, claiming that from the early 14th century it has meant “to carry out, fulfill” (transitive), probably from Old French compli, before tracing that back to the Latin complere “to fill up.”
But at the same time, it defines “compliant,” dating from the 1640s, in a negative and passive sense as “yielding to desire, ready to accommodate.” For the word “pliant,” to which compliant is clearly related, the website offers us an even more negative definition: “as deriving from the late 14th century Old French word “ploiant,” which means “‘bending, supple; compliant, fickle,’ as a noun, ‘turncoat.’”
The notion of compliance is deeply-rooted in contemporary US culture. It is also profoundly ambiguous. The idea of a culture of compliance emerges in societies, like the US, that are structured around the principle of competition. It differs radically from a culture of consent, a notion proper to societies that assume the existence of a minimum standard of cooperation, sharing and collaboration that give meaning to ordinary human relations.
Another Wired article contains an interview with Yael Eisenstat, who, after serving as a CIA officer, was hired by Facebook initially as the head of global elections integrity ops. After six months of being marginalized from all strategic reflection on the very topic she was hired to deal with, which clearly had to do with compliancy, she came to this conclusion: “I do feel like most of the stuff we were doing there was the bare minimum that we could get away with.” Pushing the analysis a little further, she added: “Every single solution we were trying to come up with was (a) the bare minimum for the company to be able to check that box, and (b) was still putting the responsibility on someone else.”
The FTC settlement purports to impose “a robust system of checks and balances that extinguishes [Zuckerberg’s] ability unilaterally to chart the path for consumer privacy at Facebook.” It claims to “monitor Facebook’s compliance with the order and issue biannual reports to the board and the US government, though not necessarily the public.”
Yet FTC has no power to enforce its robust system and, given the testimony of Eisenstat, it would appear unlikely that even under that kind of theoretical oversight that Facebook is unlikely to change its ingrained habits or modify its greed for monetizing every bit of data that transits through its servers. The Wired article sums it up by noting that “many observers, including within the FTC, are more skeptical that Wednesday’s agreement changes things at Facebook enough to keep the company from choosing profits over privacy in the future.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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