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ProBeat: Facebook is an expert at not asking for your permission

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The latest Facebook privacy scandal, a bug that set the sharing setting of 14 million users’ status updates to public, hit just one day after Facebook confirmed the last hubbub, namely that it has data-sharing deals with Chinese companies. Cambridge Analytica feels like years ago.

Unfortunately for everyone, Facebook’s approach continues to be reactionary. Or, at the very least, the social network has so many privacy gray areas that it’s going to take years to work through them all.

The social giant’s “move fast and break things” mantra, which it killed off in favor of “move fast with stable infra” in April 2014, is finally catching up with the company. Turning a cruise ship around is no easy feat.

There’s a saying that I kept surfacing in my mind as I watched Facebook coverage this week: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” Nowadays it’s often stated a bit more forcefully: “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”

I am not at all insinuating that every potential privacy problem Facebook faces is purposeful. Mistakes happen, and bugs are normal. At Facebook’s scale though, meaning over 2 billion users, and when it comes to incredibly personal information, these are much more serious issues.

I was originally going to headline this piece “Facebook is becoming an expert at begging for forgiveness,” but then I realized that’s not true. In many cases, Facebook doesn’t even apologize.

Sure, when the issue hits a fever pitch, Mark Zuckerberg is deployed. And for this latest bug, in a statement to the press, Facebook chief privacy officer Erin Egan did apologize:

We recently found a bug that automatically suggested posting publicly when some people were creating their Facebook posts. We have fixed this issue and starting today we are letting everyone affected know and asking them to review any posts they made during that time. To be clear, this bug did not impact anything people had posted before — and they could still choose their audience just as they always have. We’d like to apologize for this mistake.

But take a look at Facebook’s official post trying to explain this bug, titled “An Update on the Audience Selector Error,” also from Egan. There’s no apology, no promise this will never happen again, and no explanation as to what caused it. The post concludes with this:

We’ve heard loud and clear that we need to be more transparent about how we build our products and how those products use your data — including when things go wrong. And that is what we are doing here.

What an odd close.

Fourteen million users potentially posted status updates that were set to public instead of “friends,” “friends except …,” “specific friends,” or “only me,” or “custom.” Why is Facebook able to change their status update setting in the first place?

So yeah, Facebook is an expert at not asking for permission, as we’ve seen time and time again with bug after privacy scandal after communication mishap. But Facebook is also becoming an expert at begging for forgiveness, when it even bothers to apologize.

ProBeat is a column in which Emil rants about whatever crosses him that week.

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