Mark Zuckerberg has spent the last day or so apologizing for the Cambridge Analytica data breach, by which the shady data firm stole information on 50 million users in an attempt to sway them to vote for Donald Trump. He’s been a feature of the news cycle with apology after apology even as the #DeleteFacebook movement begins to gain steam. But is it too late? Are we seeing the end of Facebook?
On the one hand, that seems almost impossible. The site claims to have two billion active users, and makes a fortune every quarter. More than that, outside the Developed World, you might be surprised how many people are dependent on Facebook. In many countries, you can get free or cheap data by leaving Facebook open on your phone. Facebook is part of a global push by private tech companies to wire the entire world. It is, to some degree, infrastructure.
But it’s also largely unregulated infrastructure. Zuckerberg’s promises, many note, were very, very similar to a legally mandated settlement with the FTC from 2011. In other words, Zuckerberg has promised Facebook will do, well, what it’s already expected and required to do. And Zuckerberg’s narrative, that the data breach was thanks to a personality quiz and loopholes in Facebook’s infrastructure were exploited to steal data, is facing skepticism as well. One or two user profiles heisted this way, sure. But 50 million profiles being downloaded didn’t raise a red flag for a website that can quickly ban a single user for saying “men are scum”?
Facebook also has a long history of inaccuracies and errors: The metrics it reports to advertisers, the number of users it claims to have, even the number of notifications you get. It’s fair to cite Hanlon’s Law here, which is never to attribute to malice something that can be explained by incompetence. Facebook is a giant, rapidly growing system, and things tend to burst and snap when a company grows quickly. But incompetence doesn’t excuse injury, either.
We’ve seen this story before in human history, whether it’s Standard Oil or Microsoft: A company moves too fast, breaks too many things, and ultimately falls apart when governments and journalists start asking questions the company can’t answer. There have been rumblings of regulating Facebook for years, and Zuckerberg already has a visit to the U.K. Parliament on his calendar, with the Senate Judiciary Committee likely to see him as well. Some sort of regulation is likely coming, if for no other reason that regulating Facebook is an easy, popular target. But even that pales next to the biggest problem the site’s likely facing, namely its own users walking away.
We have no idea how many people have quit Facebook, either by deleting or deactivating their profiles or just not logging on. Only the site knows for sure, and it’s not going to offer those numbers up willingly. But Facebook was already struggling in the wake of the fake news debacle that saw it essentially withdraw from being the world’s news source. As months of headlines pile up, and possibly more revelations about the company arrive, Facebook’s greatest problem might simply be there are a lot of users who don’t need it, and may decide in the end they don’t want it, either.