Onstage at the Disrupt SF 2019 startup conference on Thursday, Salesforce chairman and co-CEO Marc Benioff made no secret of his feelings toward Facebook, saying the company "is the new cigarettes. It should be regulated." 

I'm generally not a fan of the government getting involved with, well, much of anything, and I've pushed back against suggestions that big tech companies should be regulated, but I have to admit that Benioff has a point. 

It's actually not even the first time Benioff has made this same point. A year and a half ago, he first shared his belief that Facebook posed a danger to both its users and the public. Yesterday, however, he elaborated on why.

A Long List of Reasons

The list isn't new or even all that original: Cambridge Analytica. Election interference. Fake news. Contractors listening to recordings of your personal conversations. Working conditions of content review contractors. Password and data leaks. And then there's just the general idea that the company exists to make a profit by monetizing your personal information. 

"When it comes to regulation, the government is doing too little, too late," said Benioff onstage yesterday. "The government has to step in."

Which, more than at any other time, looks about to happen. Facebook recently announced a $5 billion settlement over privacy violations, and has increasingly come under scrutiny by federal regulators and lawmakers. At this point, it seems almost inevitable that the tech industry will face regulation, especially over how it handles privacy and personal information. 

A Growing Problem

But Benioff's contention that Facebook is essentially as harmful and addictive as cigarettes is an interesting way of characterizing the problem. In many ways, I think he's right. Facebook is extraordinarily addictive. It's also extraordinarily dangerous for not only our privacy but in many ways also our health. 

It has been shown to cause depression, eating disorders, reduced productivity, bullying, and even divorce. Those are real problems that have a real effect on the lives of more than two billion real people on Facebook.

There is, however, at least one important distinction. I think you can argue that, unlike cigarettes, Facebook does have at least some tangible benefit in that it allows people to stay connected to friends and family who they may not see regularly in the real world. And it has enabled millions of small businesses to reach customers they previously couldn't. 

But the problem is figuring out whether those benefits are worth the cost.

Why the Government Has to Act

As a result, Benioff believes that the government should treat it the way it treats other addictive and harmful substances--with regulation. And in this case, I agree, for one important reason.

Facebook isn't able to regulate itself because its entire existence depends on two things--increasing engagement as much as possible so that people spend more and more time on Facebook, and then monetizing that engagement by gathering as much personal information as possible to better target ads. And it's really, really good at it.

And, unlike most businesses, because the service is free for users, normal market forces don't apply. People are mostly ignorant of the real cost of giving this much of their personal life over to Facebook. In fact, there's an enormous disconnect between what people say they think about the way their personal information is handled, and what they actually do about it.

On its own, Facebook isn't going to change. Mark Zuckerberg effectively has complete control over the company, and it's not clear he even grasps how big an issue this is. Instead, it's as if he's implying Facebook just has good intentions--just trust the company.

The only way Facebook is ever going to actually change the way it behaves, short of changing its leadership (which is not happening), is for the government to get involved.

A Possible Solution

"We need a national privacy law here in the U.S. as well," Benioff said yesterday. And, despite my reservations, I think he's right. We need well-thought-out regulations that create a clear framework for how user information can be collected, shared, and monetized, and how it must be protected and secured.

Companies in the business of monetizing your personal information should be required to get your consent when they track you, and make privacy the default instead of burying privacy controls deep in a complicated web of settings. And they should be required to let you know when they're tracking your activity, make it easy to see exactly what they track, and provide a real-time option to opt out.

I don't have nearly as much confidence as Benioff does that the government isn't going to make a bigger mess of the entire situation, but I do agree it's time. 

Published on: Oct 4, 2019
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