15 years on, what challenges does Facebook face today?
Updated 11:19, 04-Feb-2019
Ma Wenyan

Editor's note: Ma Wenyan is CEO of China Silkroad Investment and a young global leader at the World Economic Forum. He is also an adjunct professor at the NYU Law School on "Sovereign Finance and Investments" and the author of "China's Mobile Economy," "Digital Economy 2.0," and "The Digital Silk Road". The article reflects the author's views, and not necessarily those of CGTN.  

On February 4, 2004, Facebook was set up by Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow Harvard classmates. According to Zuckerberg, Facebook took its name from the school's directory, which listed facial portraits of students.

On its 15th birthday, however, Facebook has become the world's largest social network, boasting billions of active users across the globe.

All that leads to a key question: along with its astonishing expansion in 15 years, has Facebook developed solutions to manage the “faces” on its social network? That is, is there a digital personal identification and data management system to protect people's privacy and give them greater control over their personal data?

100 cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. /VCG Photo

100 cardboard cutouts of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg stand outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. /VCG Photo

So far, Facebook's track record is a bit mixed and 2018 was a particularly challenging year for the company. These challenges included the collection of personally identifiable information of "up to 87 million people" by the political consulting and strategic communication firm Cambridge Analytica, which may have tried to exert influence on American voters using such information. 

Also, Facebook reportedly gave technology companies like Microsoft, Netflix and Spotify special access to user data without letting them know. It came under intensified scrutiny after Russian hackers disseminated "fake news" on the platform in a way that allegedly influenced the presidential election

Facebook's struggles with user data underscore the common challenges faced by the Internet giants, which also includes Facebook's peers and competitors such as Google. Similarly, because China has the world's largest mobile Internet users with a population of 800 million (more than the entire population of Europe), the leading technology companies in China are scrambling to search for similar solutions, too.

What's alarming is that the individual users – and their personal data – are increasingly collected, amassed and grouped by a few “platform companies” like Facebook. These companies provide search, e-commerce, and social network all in one place, with an expansive vision for an immersive world, both online an offline. 

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., pauses while speaking during a Bloomberg Television interview at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, U.S., January 30, 2019. /VCG Photo

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., pauses while speaking during a Bloomberg Television interview at the company's headquarters in Menlo Park, California, U.S., January 30, 2019. /VCG Photo

What's equally worrisome is that the scale of the user data issue – billions of users – is something that just a few years ago Facebook and other giants couldn't even imagine (not to mention at its birth). Therefore, such an issue probably was not at the center of Internet giants' corporate strategy.

Going forward, however, they must view user data related issues as the core of their businesses, because their data platforms are now so powerful that they can have profound and previously unimaginable effects on entire societies including the governments and industries, and on the mental, emotional and physical health and well-being of individuals. 

Therefore, it's time to rethink a digital personal identification and data management system for the common trust of all stakeholders – the users, industries, governments and more. Without trust as the foundation for any and all interactions, users will not provide our information, exchange goods or services or act upon the information given.

Therefore, for Facebook and the likes to have a sustainable business model, they must operate through effective and enforceable privacy, security, accountability, transparency and participatory practices.

In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," the character Viola praises Olivia's gorgeous face and tells her, “Lady, you are the cruell'st she alive, if you will lead these graces to the grave and leave the world no copy.” Our digital identities are essentially the copy of our faces in cyberspace, and I would argue they have even more at stake, because an abused and distorted one is much worse than the disappearance of the original. Facebook's 15-year anniversary may well be a landmark for a new era of “digital faces.”

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