Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was in the Congressional hot seat last week as he answered for the platform’s sharing of the private data of an estimated 87 million users with an ethically dubious political consulting firm. Digital technology expert, futurist and Harvard Law School Professor Jonathan Zittrain writes in an op-ed for the New York Times that, to Congress, Zuckerberg should toss out his executive predecessors’ playbook that calls to “apologize repeatedly, be humble, and keep it boring.”
So, what should Zuckerberg do to rescue Facebook from public scorn and restore trust?
When it comes to digital crisis management, Zittrain says Facebook has more latitude to experiment since it still ultimately answers only to Zuckerberg. Its model depends on the accumulation of private data about its users for advertising purposes, he explains, making the platform privy to intensely personal information. Instead, a better model for fostering consumer trust would be that of doctors and lawyers who similarly have access to customers’ intimate details. The law calls this a “fiduciary” responsibility to not abuse personal information, and to place clients’ interests above their own.
“Doctors don’t ask patients whether they’d consent to poison over a cure; they recommend what they genuinely believe to be in the patients’ interests,” writes Zittrain. “Users should be respected by protecting them from requests made in bad faith.”
Zuckerberg can use the continuing media spotlight to his advantage, and announce that Facebook will from now on recognize its fiduciary responsibilities; that the company will not merely ask users to consent to data sharing, but also inform them of who is using it and for what purposes; and that Facebook will advise users on when they should not agree to the use of their private information. Trust – that most valuable and limited commodity where the reputations of digital companies are concerned – can be grafted onto the cornerstone of the “New Facebook.”
All digital companies will take notice of what Zuckerberg says and does in the coming weeks. And closely following Zittrain’s proposals, leaders must plan their next moves if Facebook continues to falter and hemorrhage.