Facebook’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has apologised for mistakes his company made in how it handled data belonging to 50 million of its users and promised tougher steps to restrict developers’ access to such information.
The world’s largest social media network is facing growing government scrutiny in Europe and the United States about a whistleblower’s allegations that London-based political consultancy Cambridge Analytica improperly accessed user information to build profiles on American voters that were later used to help elect President Donald Trump in 2016.
“This was a major breach of trust. I’m really sorry this happened. We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data,” Zuckerberg said in an interview with CNN, breaking a public silence since the scandal erupted at the weekend. He said in a post on Facebook the company “made mistakes, there’s more to do, and we need to step up and do it.”
He said the social network planned to conduct an investigation of thousands of apps that have used Facebook’s platform, restrict developer access to data, and give members a tool that lets them to disable access to their Facebook data more easily. But his plans did not represent a big reduction of advertisers’ ability to use Facebook data, which is the company’s lifeblood.
Zuckerberg said he was open to additional government regulation and happy to testify before the US Congress. “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated,” he told CNN. “I actually think the question is more what is the right regulation rather than yes or no, should it be regulated? … People should know who is buying the ads that they see on Facebook.”
He added the company was committed to stopping interference in the US midterm election in November and elections in India and Brazil.
Facebook shares pared gains on Wednesday after Zuckerberg’s post, closing up 0.7%. The company has lost more than $45bn of its stock market value over the past three days on investor fears that any failure by big tech firms to protect personal data could deter advertisers and users and invite tougher regulation.
Zuckerberg told The New York Times in an interview published yesterday that he had not seen a “meaningful number of people” deleting their accounts over the scandal.
The whistleblower who launched the scandal, Christopher Wylie, formerly of Cambridge Analytica, said on Twitter he had accepted invitations to appear before the US Congress and the UK Parliament. On Tuesday, the board of Cambridge Analytica suspended its chief executive Alexander Nix, who was caught in a secret recording boasting that his company played a decisive role in Trump’s victory.
However, the academic who provided the data disputed that claim: “I think what Cambridge Analytica has tried to sell is magic, and they’ve made claims that this is incredibly accurate and it tells you everything there is to tell about you. But I think the reality is it’s not that,” psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, an academic at Cambridge University, told the BBC in an interview.
Kogan, who gathered the data by running a survey app on Facebook, also said he was being made a scapegoat by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. Both companies have blamed Kogan for alleged data misuse.
The scandal has focussed attention on big internet companies and small software developers alike and how they share customer information. “All companies are going to need to do a lot more than just laissez faire policy to manage third-party data access moving forward,” said Jason Costa, who helped run APIs at Pinterest, Twitter and Google, and now works at GGV Capital.
“The days of (the) ‘we’re just a platform and can’t be held responsible for how users use it’ line that many companies use, is no longer going to be tenable.”
APIs have raised privacy concerns since they emerged around 2005, but their adoption and impact has grown rapidly as companies move data online and look for ways to make it more useful. The economic dynamic behind APIs is simple; software developers create new tools that benefit big tech companies’ users, and in return they gain instant access to a large number of consumers.