Business Technology

Thursday 19 July 2018

Privacy tsar acts on Facebook but warns her hands are tied by law

Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon
Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

There are no specific laws and regulations in Ireland to protect social media users from political targeting online, the data watchdog has warned.

Helen Dixon said she will issue fresh guidelines for consumers who are becoming more aware of the need to inform and protect themselves online.

Regulators are ramping up pressure on Facebook on both sides of the Atlantic, after it emerged data collected from 50 million users was exploited for political gain in the US.

Amid global concern over political advertisements and sponsored news stories, the data protection commissioner here confirmed it is set to examine Facebook’s oversight of third-party apps.

But Ms Dixon warned of an “absence of laws specifically regulating such political targeting online” in Ireland.

However, a spokesperson for her office confirmed that it will probe the social media’s “oversight” of political targeting on the platform.

“The Irish DPC is following up with Facebook Ireland in relation to what forms of active oversight of app developers and third parties that utilise their platform is in place with a view to ensuring it is effective,” said a spokesman for Helen Dixon’s office. “The micro-targeting of social media users with political advertisements and sponsored stories remains an ongoing issue today. In the absence of laws specifically regulating such political targeting online, the Irish DPC intends to issue guidance to users in terms of how they can trace why they are receiving certain advertisements and stories on social media, how they can mute or turn off receiving advertisements from those sources and how they can amend their ad preferences to control the types of ads they are served.”

It comes as the UK looks at strengthening its data privacy laws. Prime Minister Theresa May said Britain will consider any suggestions to give the body in charge of upholding data privacy laws more powers.

Read more: Three easy ways to keep the internet pirates from lifting your data treasure

There has been mounting concern that outside influencers will seek to swing the upcoming abortion referendum by manipulating social media.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the government was considering its response to the matter. He said it was important Irish referendums and elections were not subjected to external influences based on data mining operations. “We need to make sure we have a data protection commissioner who is properly resourced,” he said.

There has been international outrage over revelations that a British-owned political consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, sought to influence the 2016 US presidential election by mining personal information of up to 50m people in the US.

While the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica has been suspended, senior critics of Facebook across Europe and the US charge that the company is not doing enough to ensure its platform is safe from political manipulation.

In response, Facebook has promised to “aggressively” conduct an audit and investigation into the controversy.

A spokesman for the Irish data protection office said rules concerning how data is used on Facebook have been updated since events surrounding the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“The issue of friends’ data being harvested when a Facebook user engaged with an app on Facebook was resolved by Facebook in May 2014 when access to friends data was restricted by a platform upgrade,” said the DPC spokesman.

A spokeswoman for Facebook Ireland told the Irish Independent the controversy involving the UK data firm Cambridge Analytica primarily affected US Facebook users’ data.

The Irish Independent understands that less than 0.1pc of the 270,000 accounts were Irish.

More pressure was put on Facebook as American regulators opened an investigation. The US Federal Trade Commission is reportedly assessing whether it broke a 2011 settlement in which it agreed to obtain consent when sharing data.

If Facebook is found to have broken the agreement, it could be fined billions of dollars, although Facebook rejected any suggestion it had done so.

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