Google's One-Time 'Chief Technology Advocate' on Making Facebook Likable

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Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Over the years I’ve often turned to my friend Michael Jones for guidance about the cultural and social effects of technology.

For instance, five years ago I did an Atlantic interview with him about how the dawn of omnipresent mapping-on-your-phone was about to change personal and collective life. (He had been one of the inventors of Google Earth.) A few years before that, when Jones was the “chief technology advocate” at Google, he guided my wife, Deb, and me through the implications of having Deb’s Gmail account get taken over by a hacker in West Africa. My article about the episode was called “Hacked,” and it was an early klaxon about the importance of using two-stage sign-on systems. (If you’re still a holdout, install them now!) You can read more about Michael Jones’s background at the bottom of this piece. It’s relevant to note that he and I disagree on many issues of national politics, he taking a much more pure-libertarian approach than I do.

Earlier today I noted an op-ed in the New York Times by the law professor and technology-policy writer Tim Wu, saying that Facebook’s problems with privacy-protection were too fundamental to be repaired. (Instead, Wu argued for creation of nonprofit alternatives.) Michael Jones responded with the proposition below, which I’m quoting with his permission.

Here is what someone who has made his living in the details (and innovations) of the “big data” world thinks about the Facebook predicament. He begins by mentioning Wu’s article:

WRT the article you mention and the subject in general, I am your doctor. Let me explain the patient's disease and treatment.

The superficial (though global and important) issue is that FB allowed its partners/customers to access/copy/appropriate the personally identifiable information (PII) of 70+ million people.

The secondary issue is that one of the thousands of these PII recipients [that is, Cambridge Analytica] passed the data to those who could weaponize it and use to against America, FB's homeland. This is the drama of the moment, the ideas of "rogue application of data", "improper handoff of data", and "unintended usage against FB policy which therefore need to be strengthened." You'll hear noise about this when Mark Zuckerberg is questioned by Congress.

This is news and drama. But it is historical. Like a tragic accident with deaths and maiming, however terrible, it is done. There may be grave penalties, but no matter what they are, they cannot undo what has already happened—the harm, the threats, the future uses of that PII.

More meaningful is what happens going forward.

The idea of "as before, but better," which is MZ's road show theme, could only work in a world where nobody who decides understands the core issues. Sheryl Sandberg's sudden disappearance makes me wonder if perhaps this very issue is why—she well-understands the difference [between Facebook’s policies and Google’s, from her experience as a former VP at Google] and would not be able to pretend otherwise to the congresspersons and regulators.

This is where I'd like to share perspective with you about the real problem and the only known cure. A topic hopefully made clear by comparison with Google, analogy with you, and a review of the nature of targeted advertising.

Let's say that I make quiet leaf-blowers, or, anti-loud-leaf-blower sonic attenuators. [JF note: this is one of my interests.] I'm wondering, who might buy my products? who cares about loud leaf blowers? Because if I knew, I could tell them why mine are so much better than the others.

The old way would be to put an ad by the side of the road, or on a sandwich board, or in a newspaper, radio, or TV spot, so that everyone could hear about the frustration of loud leaf-blowers and my products' ability to help.

The problem with this is that of 350 million people I am paying to tell of the offer, only a small percentage care about the issue, and perhaps none so much as you. The newer version of the old way is to plaster my ad on banner ads that show atop random websites. This is the web way of the unfocused broadcast.

The new way—the Google / Overture / Amazon way—is for them to pay attention to what the user searches for ("how to stop neighbor's leaf-blower noise") AND to learn what advertisers care about ("I want leaf-blower-noise haters to see this ad")—and then do a kind of dating service where the right kind of users see the right kind of ads.

In this model, perfected by Google, there is a very strict hygiene in place: the user's behavior and interest is held in secret by Google and the advertiser never has a hint of it. All that happens is that the right ad is inserted in the right person's webpage.

It is critical to understand that the advertiser has NO IDEA who cares about leaf-blower noise. All they know is that someone who Google thought would care about it, was shown an ad for it and then clicked on it: a qualified customer lead for anti-leaf-blower-noise has teleported into the advertiser's website and the advertiser can take it from there, with questions like "are you interested? iIf so, what is your email or visit our store."

However that date works out, NO USER INFORMATION LEAVES GOOGLE.

The newer way, the one that propelled FB and MZ to wealth, is totally different. In this approach, the company builds a place for everybody to share life events with friends and family. Since FB owns that place, they can record what you tell your kids and spouse and friends, and use that to understand you and by extension, something about your friends.

Over time, they learn that the user named JAMES FALLOWS in WASHINGTON DC has a penchant for BOILED FROGS and QUIET LEAF BLOWERS. [JF note: and beer, and aviation, and the future of California, but let’s continue.] Here's where the new way comes in—FB sells access to this description to advertisers. My quiet-leaf-blower company can find out: "Who likes quiet leaf blowers?"

This list is golden. It is more valuable to me than just having Google do an anonymous introduction. It means that I "own you" and can send you leaf blower ads, quiet lawn mower ads when I expand my product line, and so on. It means that I learn about you, and as has been clearly reported, I can know about your age, eating habits, travel schedule, phone and text use, the same for your kids, your neighbors, other leaf-blower antagonists, and so on.

This is marketing nirvana. It has made FB endlessly wealthy. It has nothing to do with any other web advertising company. The closest peers would be credit scoring companies, because their customers also get "the report on the specific user" rather than an "anonymous introduction to certain users."


So, how might FB fix itself? What might government regulators seek? What could make FaceBook likable? It is very simple. There are just two choices:

a. FB stays in its send-your-PII-to-their-customers business, and then must be regulated and the customers validated precisely as AXCIOM and EXPERIAN in the credit world or doctors and hospitals in the HIPPA healthcare world; or,

b. FB joins Google and ALL OTHER WEB ADVERTISERS in keeping PII private, never letting it out, and anonymously connecting advertisers with its users for their mutual benefit.

I don't get a vote, but I like (b) and see that as the right path for civil society. There is no way that choice (a) is not a loathsome and destructive force in all things—in my personal opinion it seems that making people's pillow-talk into a marketing weapon is indeed a form of evil.

This is why I never use Facebook; I know how the sausage is made.

About the reader/author, his bio says: “Michael Jones is an executive at Niantic (the Pokémon Go company), Venture Capitalist at Seraphim Space in London, and advisor to Admiral John Richardson, the Chief of Naval Operations. He was formerly Google's Chief Technology Advocate, responsible for communicating technical details to heads of state, politicians, corporate leaders, in expert testimony, and on stage worldwide. His inventions made Google Earth possible.”

Michael Jones also contributed one of the seminal entries in the long-running “Boiled Frog” series in this space. Summary: frogs placed in a pot of tepid water will behave the way the homily goes, and sit there until they’re slowly boiled, but only if you have first removed their brains. (How do we know? A German scientist thought to try.)