A former Facebook employee is urging lawmakers to strictly regulate the company given the massive amount of user data it collects and handles. Sandy Parakilas, a former platform operations manager for Facebook, wrote in an op-ed published in the New York Times on Sunday, 19 November that the company's prioritisation of data collection over user protection and regulatory compliance made it an "attractive" target for Russian operatives and "troll farms" seeking to influence the 2016 election.
Multiple Congressional committees and a special counsel are currently investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion between Donald Trump's campaign and the Kremlin.
Over the past few months, tech giants Facebook, Twitter and Google have garnered intense political scrutiny over the role their platforms played in Russia's misinformation campaign to sway political opinion and sow discord.
After Facebook admitted it sold $10,000 worth of politically divisive ads to inauthentic accounts linked to Russia during the election campaign, the company vowed to take several measures to safeguard democracy and be more transparent about its ad policies.
Parakilas, however, said lawmakers should not allow the company to regulate itself "because it won't."
"What I saw from the inside was a company that prioritized data collection from its users over protecting them from abuse," he wrote. "As the world contemplates what to do about Facebook in the wake of its role in Russia's election meddling, it must consider this history.
"Facebook knows what you look like, your location, who your friends are, your interests, if you're in a relationship or not, and what other pages you look at on the web. This data allows advertisers to target the more than one billion Facebook visitors a day. The more data it has on offer, the more value it creates for advertisers."
Given this business model, Parakilas said Facebook has "no incentive" to monitor the collection or use of this massive amount of user data except "when negative press or regulator are involved."
According to Parakilas' LinkedIn profile, he worked as an operations manager at Facebook in 2011 and 2012. He is currently a product manager at Uber.
When he became concerned that third-party developers were exploiting Facebook user data, Parakilas claimed his former employer seemed to be more interested in suppressing negative stories rather than fixing its flaws.
"The typical reaction I recall looked like this: try to put any negative press coverage to bed as quickly as possible, with no sincere efforts to put safeguards in place or to identify and stop abusive developers," Parakilas wrote. "When I proposed a deeper audit of developers' use of Facebook's data, one executive asked me, 'Do you really want to see what you'll find?'"
Lawmakers have slammed Facebook, Twitter and Google for only discovering and coming clean about Russian information campaigns after they were pressed by Congress.
"Facebook took the same approach to this investigation as the one I observed during my tenure: react only when the press or regulators make something an issue, and avoid any changes that would hurt the business of collecting and selling data," Parakilas said.
"This makes for a dangerous mix: a company that reaches most of the country every day and has the most detailed set of personal data ever assembled, but has no incentive to prevent abuse," he argued. "Facebook needs to be regulated more tightly, or broken up so that no single entity controls all of its data. The company won't protect us by itself, and nothing less than our democracy is at stake."