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Facebook Must Decide Whether It Will Refurbish Its Facade Or Rebuild Its Service

Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox told BuzzFeed News, “We’re going through our tools and approach with a fine-toothed comb.”

Posted on March 28, 2018, at 5:08 p.m. ET

Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP / Getty Images

Facebook is rethinking its approach to data collection amid the Cambridge Analytica privacy crisis that’s sent its share price spiraling and may finally force its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, to testify before Congress.

“If data isn’t helping people, we shouldn’t use it,” Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. “This past week has underscored that we can do better. We’re going through our tools and approach with a fine-toothed comb.”

Cox’s remarks indicate that Facebook, the world’s preeminent personal data collector, is reconsidering the fundamentals of its data-reliant products and ad business as it deals with the scandal.

For the first time, the company seems be weighing whether it must rebuild its products in a way that relies on less gobbling of user data, or whether it can continue to get away with its current data-sucking model. By all indications, the company believes it won’t change its products much — just last Thursday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg told CNBC, "We believe we can operate our business with our current business model.” But Cox indicated that Facebook is at least examining the way its products work, and asking whether the data collection used to power them is good. “We’re taking a hard look in the mirror on this one,” he said.

Cox’s remarks come as public furor has persisted over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. The episode, set off by a whistleblower who outlined how Cambridge Analytica obtained and used data from 50 million Facebook user profiles in violation of Facebook’s rules, has set off a widespread scrutiny of Facebook’s inner workings and privacy controls.

Elected officials, the press, and the public have all reacted to the news by directing their ire not only toward Facebook’s once very lax developer policies, but also to the core of its service. In the days following the Cambridge Analytica news, #DeleteFacebook has trended on Twitter (yet Facebook has simultaneously climbed the App Store charts), and people have been downloading copies of their data that Facebook has collected.

In response, Facebook has gone on an apology tour and introduced a number of fixes. It will now prevent developers from storing data on users that haven’t used their services for three months; it’s planning to audit thousands of apps that may still have caches of users' data; and Wednesday, it introduced a new privacy center page that attempts to make it easier for people to review and manage their data and who has access to it.

Cox suggested that Facebook will continue to heavily rely on data for its products and services. “We want to understand which data is giving people great experiences in ads, feed, search, messaging, and relevance systems,” Cox said. “On top of that, we should be clear about how data is used, and offer easy ways to control it.”

So far, Facebook has only made a few tiny tweaks in response to the Cambridge Analytica crisis. It’s yet to be seen whether it will simply refurbish the facade of its platform, or if it will rebuild its services from the ground up. Referring to Wednesday’s privacy center announcement, Cox indicated additional steps are on the way. “It’s just a small step,” he said. “There’s more to come.”

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