Meta — formerly known as Facebook — is a household name. The social media giant, which owns 91 other companies — including Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus VR — is currently valued at more than $364 billion. But the company doesn’t have plans to slow down anytime soon. In fact, its next venture, the metaverse, is something the tech world has been buzzing about.
The metaverse is not a one-company-takes-all idea. But Meta is certainly a contender to keep an eye on, having invested $10 billion in 2021 alone. The social media giant’s foray into virtual and augmented reality will open a new host of data collection and privacy questions.
“I think they’re a fascinating company because they mediate much of the human communication going on on the internet,” said Alex Kantrowitz, founder of Big Technology. “You could make an argument that if you’re having a conversation on the internet, flip a coin, the chances are you’re probably on a Meta property.”
With Meta’s rocky track record in the data department, a few questions come to mind: What can we expect from Meta’s metaverse? Will the idea become the next iteration of the internet? Or are we all getting excited about an idea bound to flounder and fail?
Meta’s History: A Brief Timeline
Meta’s had a turbulent history, all the way back to its inception as The Facebook on Harvard’s college campus.
Mark Zuckerberg, a then 19-year-old Harvard sophomore, launched the social networking site on Feb. 4, 2004. A week later, three Harvard seniors — Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra — accused Zuckerberg of stealing the idea.
The resulting lawsuit, which alleged theft and fraud, ended in a $65 million settlement in the Winklevoss’ favor.
Since then, the social media site has continued to make headlines, primarily for its actions regarding users’ data and privacy. Let’s take a look at some of Meta’s most notable moments in data history:
November 2011: Facebook Settles With FTC
Facebook reached a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission on privacy charges.
Among the complaints, the FTC claimed Facebook promised users it would not share personal information with advertisers, but did. The social media platform also made changes so that certain information users designated as private was made public.
Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, said in a press release: “Facebook’s innovation does not have to come at the expense of consumer privacy.”
June 2014: Facebook’s Emotion Experiment Sparks Outrage
The public became aware that Facebook, working with Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco, ran tests in 2012 on 689,000 unaware users to manipulate news feeds and control which emotional expressions people saw.
The goal of the research? To determine if exposure to specific emotions led users to change their own posting behaviors.
While Facebook claimed the experiment did not unnecessarily collect data, many criticized the research and its impact, claiming the information could be used for political or persuasive purposes. Others argued that Facebook may have breached ethical and legal guidelines by failing to inform users of the experiment.
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March 2018: Cambridge Analytica Scandal Comes to Light
Between 2013 and 2015, Facebook exposed data on 87 million users to an employee at Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm.
How was that data harvested? Aleksandr Kogan, a Russian-American researcher at Cambridge University, created a Facebook quiz app that not only collected data from people who took the quiz, but also exposed a loophole in the Facebook API that allowed him to harvest data from Facebook friends of quiz-takers.
While Facebook prohibited selling data collected this way, it did not enforce this rule, and Cambridge Analytica sold the data anyway.
“The people whose job is to protect the user always are fighting an uphill battle against the people whose job is to make money for the company,” Sandy Parakilas, an employee on Facebook’s privacy enforcement team until 2012, told The New York Times.
December 2018: Facebook Violates FTC Ruling
Even after promising the FTC it would not share user data without permission, Facebook continued to sell this information — including “private” messages — to more than 150 companies, including Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo, Netflix and Spotify.
Facebook’s defense? It did not need to secure users’ consent before sharing this data because it considered these partners “extensions of itself.”
July 2019: FTC Fines Facebook $5B
After a renewed investigation, the FTC mandated a new round of requirements for Facebook, including creating an independent privacy committee and restructuring the social media company from the board-level down.
The FTC also issued a $5 billion fine, the largest ever imposed for privacy violations.
“Despite repeated promises to its billions of users worldwide that they could control how their personal information is shared, Facebook undermined consumers’ choices,” FTC chairman Joe Simons said in a press release.
August 2022: Facebook Shares Deleted Messages With Law Enforcement
Facebook gave law enforcement a user's private chat logs, which showed that the Nebraska-based teen and her mother allegedly bought medication online to induce abortion.
The mother was charged with five crimes (including three felonies) and the teen daughter, who is being tried as an adult, was charged with one felony and two misdemeanors.
This is not the first time the social media company has handed over user data to law enforcement. In fact, a former Facebook employee claimed the platform allows employees to access deleted Facebook Messenger data for this purpose — despite telling users that deleted content would be permanently removed from servers.
Related Article: Facebook Stares Down Its First Ever Revenue Decline
Meta’s Role in the Metaverse
In Meta’s 18 years of existence, it hasn’t had a good track record regarding user privacy and data protection. It’s faced billions in fines and has become the butt of many jokes. But that doesn’t stop people from using it.
With the company’s new foray into the metaverse, many new questions and concerns are popping up.
One advantage for Meta, according to Kantrowitz, is that the company has already seen what can go wrong with social media and social networking. While other social media sites existed before Facebook — think Myspace and Friendster — Zuckerberg was still a pioneer in the area.
On the other hand, Kantrowitz added, “You could also say that even though they’re aware of the issues that might ensue on the metaverse, they don’t exactly have a track record that gives you faith that they’d be able to mediate some of the problems.”
More Data, More Problems
One of the biggest concerns surrounding Meta’s metaverse? The vast amounts of new user data.
Bill Malik, VP of infrastructure strategies at Trend Micro, explained in a video that the metaverse will consist of “many sensors monitoring our every move, gesture and expression. More thoroughly monitored, classified than any human beings ever before.”
He added, “That data will inform advertisers and politicians of our deepest desires, fears, shame and guilt, giving rise to a mountain of evidence that will let anonymous experts calibrate products, design candidates and launch social media initiatives that will be well-nigh irresistible. Privacy will have no chance.”
As far as internet and data security goes, we’re still trying to figure that out. We’re attempting to define rules and regulations, like Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act in the United States. And the metaverse will add more complications to an already complex problem.
“We do not know how to architect metaverse security,” said Malik. “We’re far from writing the policies to protect ourselves, we’re a decade away from designing regulations for trustworthiness, so the final — and, as always, primary — element of security becomes us. People are the key.”
A Meta-Backed Military
Another issue with Meta’s metaverse? The potential to weaponize that new boatload of data.
In 2021, Microsoft secured a deal to produce 120,000 augmented reality (AR) headsets for the US Army. The headsets, which enable people to see holograms over real-world environments, will include weapons sights view, compass directions, night and thermal vision, friendly and enemy positions and other useful information.
With members of Microsoft and Apple’s VR and AR teams jumping ship for Meta, it’s not hard to imagine that other metaverse players could secure similar agreements. This type of contract, Malik told CMSWire, “is enough to really energize a marketplace, and … drive the adoption of the metaverse.”
And he believes these technological advances could translate over to law enforcement.
“Think about a bunch of law enforcement officials with VR glasses doing real-time profiling as they’re walking the beat,” said Malik, “‘Oh my god, that guy robbed a bank 16 years ago. Oh my god, Google says this fellow has kiddie porn on his phone.’ Because the guy was taking a picture of his ailing child requested by the pediatrician.
“I definitely think that’s the way we’re headed.”
Will Meta’s Virtual World Become Our Dystopia?
The nature of human communication is messy, said Kantrowitz, whether it happens online or off. “And when you add a layer of technology to it, you’re just adding some more scale. And that scale means there’s going to be greater opportunities for communication but also greater opportunities for problems.”
Will there be complications? Kantrowitz asked. Yes. Will those complications be a direct result of Meta’s involvement? “I think that’s an open question.”
Malik added that the best way to avoid the consequences of what the metaverse might become is to talk about it.
“My not so optimistic perspective,” said Malik, “is that there are going to be some tragic occurrences involving stuff like the girl who was outed to the cops [the August 2022 abortion case] or the fellow who was actually arrested because Google AI took that photograph and informed police that he had kiddie porn and now he’s trying to fight being typed as a sex offender.”
In the meantime, he said we must look at the risks surrounding the virtual world and be intelligent about them.
Kantrowitz offered another perspective — that we don’t know if the metaverse will happen. “And so many people are talking about it with certainty,” he said. “They’re talking about how it’s important to be present in something that, for most people, doesn’t exist.”
He predicted that AR and VR will expand in directions many people won’t anticipate — like the metaverse becoming a major factor in enterprise environments, such as training and recruitment, and never expanding further.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens when it goes in that direction. And we’ll have a whole new set of questions that we’re not even anticipating right now that we’ll have to ask.”