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You are here: Home Bulletins 2018 Finding a free software silver lining to the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal

Finding a free software silver lining to the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal

by Georgia Young Contributions Published on Jun 11, 2018 04:24 PM

In 2018, the political data firm Cambridge Analytica was exposed for exploiting social media site Facebook's lax data policies to gather information on millions of people for Donald Trump's presidential campaign. Their micro-targeted messages, based on that cache of online activity, aimed to win votes for Trump – and Facebook did not tell users their information was used.

This latest violation by the site didn’t surprise free software activists, but others were stunned that the data gathered by privacy-unfriendly sites like Facebook (which force you to relinquish control over your computing to someone else’s server and impose nonfree JavaScript for the parts that do run on your local system) might be used to influence elections.

We have long been aware that nonfree software harms people, and that companies like Facebook are deliberately tracking as much of your Web activity as possible, because, whether they're selling shoes or a political candidate, advertisers will pay for it. But a silver lining can be salvaged from these highly publicized violations of (unwarranted) trust by proprietary peddlers: we get to tout the benefits of distributed, user-controlled, free software to our friends, family, and community.

Here are some Facebook-related discussion points. Try them out on someone who is considering leaving the site or making the switch to free software (read more about libre social media alternatives like Mastodon, GNU social, and Diaspora).

Privacy and corporate surveillance: Using Facebook, or any Service as a Software Substitute or nonfree software, practically guarantees your privacy will be violated. Facebook claims to provide a "personalized experience," but its terms of service say this is based on the data it gathers about you, including "what you share and do on and off our Products." Facebook admits it is gathering as much information as possible about you, always. Some people say they aren't concerned about privacy, because they have nothing to hide. Talk to them about Cambridge Analytica influencing political votes via micro-targeting -- no matter your politics, the fact that one's personal information could be used for political propaganda is pretty creepy.

Government surveillance: This sort of corporate surveillance is tied to mass government surveillance. As revealed in 2013, the US National Security Agency's PRISM program has gathered massive amounts of information, including emails, search history, and chats from Facebook, Google, Apple, and others since 2007. If you do any political organizing in "private" Facebook groups, or just RSVP to a protest via a Facebook event, governments know about it. If you don't think you're at risk in your own country, you could be targeted if you travel to another country where beliefs you've expressed on Facebook are unacceptable or illegal.

Free, distributed software: Finally, there are many reasons for using free, distributed software instead. With free software, the code can be examined by anybody – if I don't have the technical knowledge to analyze how code behaves, I can read independent analyses by people who can. I do not have to go in blind, forced to trust that software is not acting with ill intent. Sites like Facebook take control away from the user, because the software you are running is not on your own computer. They also consolidate control and surveillance -- nearly 2 billion people use Facebook, which means the site has gathered a truly massive amount of personal data. Using distributed, free software puts control back in the hands of the user: you can self-host a personal or social Web site, or use the same software by choosing from among many smaller hosts, which you may feel are more trustworthy. (There's still a risk of privacy violation with decentralized, free software, which is why government regulation prohibiting those violations is important: read more about decentralized and federated software on the FSF High Priority Projects list.)

The free software movement gets stronger as it grows. The libre silver lining to dastardly behavior like Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook user information is that it gives you the opportunity to introduce people to privacy-respecting, decentralized free software. Help everyone #DeleteFacebook and get free!

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