Let's be honest about why Facebook has been doing what it does

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Credit: Illustration by Tam Nguyen/Ad Age

As Cannes approaches, the Facebook team that's prepping for the festival and will be on-site there is surely hoping for a lull in the continuing anti-Facebook storm.

But, um, that doesn't look like it's going to happen. Consider the steady stream of damning headlines from just one publication, The New York Times, last week. On Monday: "Facebook Gave Device Makers Deep Access to Data on Users and Friends." On Tuesday: "Facebook Back on the Defensive, Now Over Data Deals With Device Makers." On Wednesday: "Facebook Gave Data Access to Chinese Firm Flagged by U.S. Intelligence."

And by Thursday, the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook mess was back in the paper, thanks to an appearance by CA's defensive, combative former CEO, Alexander Nix, before British lawmakers.

In the U.S., Facebook took a bit of a defensive, combative tact too, bizarrely trying to spin via direct outreach from the @facebook Twitter handle.

"Hi @nickconfessore and NYT," it tweeted, for example, addressing one of the reporters behind the unfolding Times exposé. "We think it's important to note, we launched device-integrated APIs over 10 years ago to help get Facebook onto mobile devices. At the time there were no app stores and this was standard industry practice."

Oh dear. That "standard industry practice" line—the technocrat's version of "Everyone at the party was doing drugs, officer!"—was followed by assertions that "We controlled these APIs tightly from the get-go" and "We are not aware of any abuse by these companies."

The tweetstorm had more than a bit of the robot-deer-caught-in-headlights quality—Why are you being so mean to us?!—that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demonstrated before U.S. and European lawmakers in April and May.

And predictably, on Twitter especially, Facebook's self-defense was met with extreme annoyance. For instance, "You've NEVER respected user privacy and I believe you never will" from Twitter user @NuuanuMele, and just "Oh piss off" from @protacotrucks. But one response, from @appliedsoft, was especially telling: "Your control was so effective that a whole industry was born based on using non-consensual information by 3rd parties."

Let's talk about that "whole industry" for a moment, shall we? Various representatives of that whole industry, and that whole industry's primary customer base, are descending on France for the latest Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. There will be some loose talk about Facebook.

But conspicuous in the continuing Facebook pile-on is the fact that everybody keeps acting like the company just showed up with an unlimited budget to wage war on our collective privacy. That budget was supplied by the marketing world—by advertisers, by brands large and small.

The marketing world may not have exactly asked Facebook to do all it did, but it hasn't exactly complained much either. For years before the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there were warning signs (to ignore) and Rubicons to cross (that we crossed) regarding Facebook's use and misuse of personal information. Every step of the way, marketers responded by saying, basically, "Here, take even more of our money!"

It's like everyone in the marketing world is suddenly tut-tutting in outrage about the unscrupulous coke dealer and then saying, "Hey, let's go do lines on the Croisette."

Marketers created the incentive for Facebook (and others) to harvest data in the first place. Marketers were busy buying targeted ads, relentlessly (and reasonably) pushing for efficiency, trying to take advantage of everything Facebook said it could do—ethically, presumably (with an emphasis on "presumably"). Facebook, in turn, made presumptions about the ethics of its partners; see the line above, "We are not aware of any abuse by these companies," which doesn't exactly suggest robust controls or verification.

Who defines "standard industry practice," anyway? Who figures out when that practice crosses a line? Who decides when and how to course-correct? It can't just be Facebook.

Honestly, it's getting a little too easy and convenient to bash Zuckerberg & Co. For instance, last week Rep. David Cicilline, a House antitrust subcommittee member, tweeted his thoughts about the Times' reporting: "Sure looks like Zuckerberg lied to Congress about whether users have 'complete control' over who sees our data on Facebook. This needs to be investigated and the people responsible need to be held accountable."

The "people responsible" are not just Facebook. As the Times reported, the social network struck data-sharing partnerships with "at least 60 device makers—including Apple, Amazon, BlackBerry, Microsoft and Samsung." And of course device makers aren't the only marketers that want that data.

So, sure, while in Cannes, you can bypass Facebook Beach if it helps you feel righteous. But basically everyone in town—you and your industry friends, and the friends of your friends—is part of this whole endless, and endlessly scandalous, data-supply chain.

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