Friday 20 September 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Big tech's once unfettered growth will stall without public trust'


Founder: Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau/File Photo
Founder: Facebook’s Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Reuters/Charles Platiau/File Photo

Adrian Weckler Technology editor

MARK Zuckerberg is getting more and more urgent. Facebook, he insists, does not sell your personal data. Nor does it get your data in shady ways. But it does somehow have to cash in on your use of its products to keep it 'free'.

Will the public believe him?

It's a message that Sheryl Sandberg repeated, publicly and privately, when she visited Dublin last week. Both of Facebook's top two executives know that there's more than reputation and headlines at stake.

In Dublin this week, Ms Sandberg met Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon.

The Irish watchdog has at least two major investigations under way into Facebook's data activities, and either could result in a very large fine under European GDPR privacy rules.

Ms Sandberg's meeting with Ms Dixon took place just 48 hours before French authorities fined Facebook's rival, Google, €50m, under the GDPR regime.

One challenge that Facebook still faces is a lack of clarity about what it does and how.

Earlier this month, a major US survey confirmed what we all suspected, that three-quarters of us don't even realise that we're categorised by Facebook for advertising purposes. Similarly, it's a fair bet that most of Facebook's three million Irish users still don't understand how and why Facebook collects and stores intimate personal details about them, despite all of the controversies and scandals around privacy and breaches.

This stuff matters. Facebook isn't just a niche online service, like Dropbox or Slack. It sways elections and controls huge swathes of the international population's everyday communications.

While it has simplified some of its privacy settings and controls, it still has substantial commercial interests in keeping much of it vague and opaque.

For example, this newspaper recently looked in depth at the question of whether Facebook records your voice conversations to serve you ads. With testimony from voice experts and our own testing, we concluded that it probably doesn't.

But one reason that the company still faces this widespread assumption is that it is reluctant to talk too loudly about how it does actually gather your data.

It doesn't want to advertise that when your friend looks something up, you often see an ad in your feed. Because if it tells you that clearly, you might tighten up your privacy settings. Ultimately, that makes it slightly less attractive for an advertiser.

"These companies know so much about our lives," industry expert and SoapBox Labs founder Patricia Scanlon told me.

"There's an expression, the creepy valley. This is where companies are trying to hold back on letting you know how much they actually know about you because they fear it will freak you out."

Mr Zuckerberg may be trying to throw open the doors of transparency. But there's a long way to go.

Irish Independent

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