Wednesday 21 August 2019

Key questions remain for Facebook after The Great Hack

Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Niall Carson/PA
Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Niall Carson/PA

John McGee

Anyone who has watched The Great Hack, the Netflix documentary about the fallout from the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal, can be forgiven for feeling a tad annoyed, scared and, perhaps, bewildered. Others may feel let down because it didn't delve deeper into the shenanigans that played a major role in influencing voters in the run-up to the US presidential campaign and the UK's Brexit referendum three years ago.

Launched at an invite-only screening in London two weeks ago, before making its broadcast debut on Netflix, The Great Hack attempts to go under the hood of what is unquestionably the biggest scandal ever to beset Facebook since it was founded 15 years ago.

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As the documentary unfolds, the viewer meets a cast of unlikely poachers-turned-gamekeepers, each on their own personal road to redemption, including the original whistleblower and former CA employee Chris Wylie and his colleague, Brittany Kaiser, who comes across as more Brittany-like than Kaiser-like as she criss-crosses the Atlantic to testify at various hearings into the fallout.

Then there's Julian Wheatland, the former chief operating officer of CA, who reassuringly tells us that "there was always going to be a Cambridge Analytica; it just sucks for me that it was Cambridge Analytica".

And he is right, because in the data-driven marketing and communications world that often operates in the shadows, there are at least six global data marketing firms - some of which are owned by advertising and consultancy groups - that have built up in-depth profiles of millions, if not billions, of people, based on hundreds of different data points they have amassed in the online and offline worlds.

There's also a cameo appearance for Roger McNamee, one of the early backers of Facebook, who has since become one of its most vocal critics.

McNamee has compared the likes of Facebook and Google to the big chemical companies of the 1960s, many of which were "artificially profitable" because they were allowed to pollute the environment without any cost to themselves.

The Great Hack, however, had probably left the editing suite by the time the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) had agreed a record-breaking $5bn (€4.5bn) 'settlement' with Facebook over allegations related to user privacy that flowed from the CA fallout.

As monetary fines go, it was on the high side and is equivalent to about 9pc of Facebook's annual revenue, or 23pc of its 2018 profit. But many, particularly data advocacy groups, felt the FTC didn't go far enough.

While it demands more privacy oversight at Facebook, nobody was held accountable, nor did it mandate sweeping changes to how the company collects data - only to the way it makes disclosures and honours user settings.

Facebook repeatedly "subverted users' privacy choices to serve its own business interests", the FTC said, adding that its actions violated a previous settlement requiring the company to adhere to certain privacy guidelines.

Given that Facebook has incurred the wrath of regulators not just in the US but also in Europe many times before, only a gambler would bet on it not happening again.

While handing out big fines doesn't appear to be a sufficient deterrent, it seems likely that greater regulation of social media platforms - across a number of different fronts - is probably a better course of action. The only problem is that legislators appear to be unsure about how to tackle the problem, and whether or not legislation tackles Facebook's near market dominance in data and digital advertising, or if they should stay focused on matters of privacy. As the firm is data-fuelled and advertising-funded, it's difficult to separate the two.

In addition, much of the competition and anti-trust legislation in various jurisdictions around the world, including the EU, was framed to deal with issues that arose in the industrial world of physical goods and services, and with local and national marketplaces in mind.

In other words, it was never framed to deal with the many complex issues that have been spawned by the digital age and the complexities surrounding data - both personal and public - and how it is monetised.

Coming up with regulations to govern the digital age, and the giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, will come with many difficulties, and it may prove impossible to establish a level playing pitch, never mind any fair and equitable ground rules.

And therein lies the challenge for policymakers around the world. If they get it wrong, we can expect, as Wheatland says, another Cambridge Analytica.

Sunday Indo Business

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