Reining In Data-Crazed Tech Companies

Facebook has been in seriously hot water for its data monetization model almost from the firm’s beginning. The Cambridge Analytica, election meddling and fake news scandals have turned up the heat.

Facebook’s problems aren’t limited to the public and government backlash that spans several countries; the firm faces potentially devastating legal threats too. On the surface, it appears to be a clear-cut issue: Social media and other tech companies must be reined in.

Certainly, the EU thinks so, as is evidenced by its new General Data Protection Regulation. However, despite the horrendous damages wreaked to date, the outlines of the social media problem aren’t quite clear, and neither is the fix.

When Data Is All You’ve Got

Chief among the most concerning worries resulting from a long line of recent scandals are election-fixing, or at least election meddling, in several democracies. Very few citizens of those countries would consider it a good thing for a foreign power to use social media to sway elections.

Several countries, including the U.S., France and Germany, have determined that Russia-backed election meddling is a continuing threat, and that social media is at the heart of its preferred tactics.

One would think that the need to curb or end attempts to unduly manipulate election outcomes by a nation state or other outside entity — such as UK-based Cambridge Analytica — would be irrefutable. Certainly, Facebook sees the writing on the wall.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced several measures to address heightened anxiety over its role. Facebook publicly apologized for the Cambridge Analytica data-sharing scandal and promised it would notify users if they were among the 87 million people whose data was “improperly shared” with the firm.

Facebook also promised to increase transparency and impeove vetting of its political advertising and news providers.

Is that enough?

Promises, Profits and Patriotism

“Facebook and other technology firms are thus far proposing to fix the problem via self-regulation only — by setting up rules that they themselves would promise to follow, rather than being held accountable by some sort of legislative authority that would involve users having some sort of legal recourse,” said Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, assistant professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University.

“The problem with this is that, as we’ve seen, there is little accountability,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

In fact, Facebook did not act on the issues of election meddling and fake news until there was a massive public outcry, even though it was aware of the problems much earlier. The same is true of the illicit data sharing with third parties such as Cambridge Analytics.

Data monetization is Facebook’s business model. Facebook and some other tech firms exist solely to gather and sell everyone’s data, exposing users’ lives in increasingly more granular detail.

Facebook works hard to pull more intimate details about your life than what you voluntarily post on social media or release as exhaust while searching the Web. Among the most troubling data mining the company recently has done: its Child Predator Survey; and a secret effort to gather patient data from hospitals and other medical groups to add to what it knows about users.

Indeed, Facebook appears to respect no boundaries in its search to own an increasingly large hoard of personal data.

Facebook’s Usage Agreement “is 70 pages long,” noted Ronald Jones, a cybersecurity faculty member at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology.

The privacy and usage agreement from the Facebook company Masquerade specifies that it collects, mines and sells Facebook content, such as images of faces, he also pointed out.

“The Facebook agreements indemnify Facebook actions in selling/delivering/providing user related information to Cambridge Analytica, so their actions were legal. No US laws appear to be violated,” Jones told the E-Commerce Times. “Are tougher regulations needed for social networking? What about the first amendment? Also, who decides what is or is not acceptable for the social networking space?”

Freedom of speech means that it may be very difficult to curb the speech spewed by hostile nation states, or to stem the tide of fake news proliferating on the network, he added — and he isn’t the only one who thinks so.

“What is harmful content? Harmful in what way? To whom? And why? And what is fake news?” asked Richard Santalesa, founder of the Sm@rtEdgeLaw Group.

“News has been faked, or slanted, since the first stylus was put to a clay tablet,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “The Constitution and First Amendment don’t contain a right not to be offended, and there’s no such thing as a hate speech exemption to speech that’s otherwise protected by the First Amendment.”

Thus, regulating tech firms is a tough and perhaps unforgivable thing to do in the minds of many American patriots. Yet the traditional American claim that market forces will police bad behavior doesn’t hold true either.

What People Want

Take, for example, Facebook’s effort to gather patient data. The market had no knowledge of that until investigative reporters exposed it. Given that traditional news media outlets have been getting pounded as fake news, and actual fake news has been held up as truth by some others, how is the market to learn of such misdeeds or know whether a response is needed?

“What every person must understand is Facebook is not about people other than as its currency,” remarked Janice Taylor, CEO of Mazu.

“You, me, our children are tokens — data points that reinforce the money printing machine,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

“If we go away, Facebook loses its entire business,” Taylor continued. “Are Mark and Sheryl [Sandberg] really going to shut down the money printing machine? They may grease it, disguise it better, lie some more — but at the core root of Facebook/Instagram is [the desire] to print money for themselves and their shareholders.”

Even if Facebook has seen the light and truly sets out to self-regulate to an appreciable degree, there is nothing to hold it on that course over time.

“EU-style rules about data privacy would be a fine step,” suggested Fordham’s Baldwin-Philippi, “but again, Facebook could always change that policy in the future — as it has many times before. Relying on technology firms to regulate themselves strips users of recourse if and when something goes wrong.”

Actual laws spelling out data ownership could go a long way in solving this problem for users — but that might mean the end of Facebook and other social media companies, since their business model centers on their ownership of users’ personal information.

“In the U.S., the people do not own their personal information, while in the EU the people have undisputed ownership of the personal data,” explained Harrisburg University’s Jones.

While Americans presumably will be safer with protections in place, and so will democracy, many may not want that protection.

“People think that if I am not on Facebook I can’t build my business,” noted Mazu’s Taylor.

“What about my family memories? My calendar of events?” they might worry.

“We as people need to understand that Facebook was never about you or I or connecting people — it was about money and control,” Taylor emphasized. “Why do we think they care more about us now that they are getting caught? Does a drug dealer suddenly care about all the drug users once he is arrested? What if the drug dealer just makes better cocaine. Should we trust him then?”

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Pam Baker has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2007. Her main areas of focus are technology, business and finance. She has written hundreds of articles for leading publications including InformationWeek, Institutional Investor magazine, and TechTarget. She has authored several analytical studies on technology, as well as eight books, the latest of which is Data Divination: Big Data Strategies. She also wrote and produced an award-winning documentary on paper-making. She is a member of the National Press Club, Society of Professional Journalists and the Internet Press Guild. Email Pam.

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