A Crisis of Ethics in Technology Innovation
As businesses work to delight consumers, they must also protect the public trust.
Cambridge Analytica has become a household name, synonymous with invasion of privacy. Its controversial entanglement with Facebook was a wake-up call about how we share information online. Of course, Cambridge Analytica is gone now, and Mark Zuckerberg has survived so far. But the fallout for Facebook feels never-ending: the initial stock drop, the congressional testimony, a record-breaking $5 billion fine from the Federal Trade Commission, a class-action suit approved by a federal judge,1 and another uncomfortable grilling in Congress.
The Facebook scandal is a cautionary tale for executives and consumers alike. But the lesson is much bigger than one about so-called fake news. The hasty reconstruction of value chains around new technologies is introducing and exacerbating ethical concerns across industries. It’s a free-for-all race as companies compete to impress users with new capabilities, and what’s at stake isn’t just which ones survive but whether we are able to sustain a civilized society or end up in a high-tech Wild West.
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Facebook ushered in a new era of publishing by building the world’s largest content creation and distribution network, amassing billions of users. It invited content makers and advertisers to subsidize those users on a platform that many people feel they can’t live without. No longer was the media value chain being orchestrated by a few large organizations; Facebook was opening up markets by enabling anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection to effortlessly plug into the world’s largest distribution system. In effect, Facebook broke apart the media value chain and simultaneously re-created it around the company’s application programming interfaces (APIs).
But as Facebook helped transform an industry ecosystem, it didn’t concern itself with editorial ethics. It sold access to its user base — to companies like Cambridge Analytica — while maintaining distance from anything posted on its own platform. Content creators could tap into end-user data to precisely target their messaging, whether the information they were putting out was false, misleading, or true. Driven by demand from billions of users, Facebook focused only on ensuring that the content on its network amassed clicks.
In this new world of publishing — where authors, editors, and distributors are separate entities pursuing their own interests — the scandalous consequences may seem predictable. After all, accountability also splinters with the rest of the value chain.
1. J. Stempel, “Judge Lets Facebook Privacy Class Action Proceed, Calls Company’s Views ‘So Wrong,’” Reuters, Sept. 9, 2019, www.reuters.com.
2. Building on a theory popularized by Kim B. Clark: C.M. Christensen, M.E. Raynor, and M. Verlinden, “Skate to Where the Money Will Be,” Harvard Business Review 79, no. 10 (November 2001): 72-83.
3. C. Domonoske, “Federal Judge Extends Order Blocking 3D Gun Blueprints From Internet,” NPR, Aug. 27, 2018, www.npr.org.
4. J. Wheatland, “I Was a Top Executive at Cambridge Analytica. It Taught Me a Tough Lesson About Public Trust,” Perspectives, CNN Business, Aug. 19, 2019, www.cnn.com.