FUTURE OF THE INTERNET
THE FACEBOOK DATA SCANDAL HAS FINALLY FORCED REGULATORS TO TAKE ACTION ON PRIVACY. NICOLE KOBIE REVEALS WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET
The Facebook data scandal has nally forced regulators to take action on privacy. We examine reveals what it means for the future of the internet
The future of the internet is at a crossroads, with the direction set by regulators who are nally giving due weight to the importance of privacy. The most obvious sign? That US politicians alike are ready to slap down Facebook in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, summoning CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg to answer questions over the missteps made by the world’s dominant social network.
“It’s a really big moment, a cultural awakening about what’s happening with our data,” said Laura Tribe, executive director at OpenMedia. “My biggest hope is… that we can have a conversation as a society about how we want this to go. It’s about trying to build something that’s better.”
We can’t say if Facebook will exist in its current form in ve years – perhaps it will be cast aside like Myspace before it. But we do have a sense of what regulations are likely to be faced by internet giants, along with the lobbyists and in uencers who will be trying to in uence governments.
Those lobbyists will include Facebook, which is always keen to help fund election campaigns, but don’t ignore the noisy constituents tired of their rights being trampled. “No-one really knows what’s going to happen next, but it’s up to us to shape what it’s going to look like – because it’s clear that something needs to change,” said Tribe.
Here’s how regulators could alter how businesses behave online – and what that means for the future of tech.
SCENARIO 1 STOP SELLING DATA
Facebook has an extra piece of data on us – our credit cards. After hearing ad nauseam that the problem isn’t Cambridge Analytica but Facebook’s business model, regulators ban the trade in data. To protect their bottom lines, Facebook, Twitter and Google all start charging. The result? Plenty of us opt out, making social media a niche hobby.
Tribe isn’t convinced this scenario is very likely, noting that Zuckerberg has said there will always be a free version of Facebook – but if it did, expect user numbers to fall off. “Right now, Facebook’s fundamental model is based on people sharing their data,” she said. “If Twitter started charging $2 per month for an account, what would that do? Would that change the amount of trolls and bots that are on there? Would that change the amount of people just on there watching? Is it really worth my money to invest in trolling?” Besides, we shouldn’t have to pay for privacy, she adds.
Matt Stoller, fellow at the Open Markets Institute, argues it’s not us that will pay, but Facebook. “One of the really important changes that’s going to happen is you’re going to see a redirection of ad revenue from Facebook and Google back into the rest of the ad nance space,” he said. “These guys are monopolists, and they have been capturing revenue that is not rightfully theirs… that’s why Facebook has $40 million of revenue and 50% margins, because stealing is a great business model.” And antitrust regulators pushing revenue back to traditional ad companies is potentially very good news for struggling newspapers and the like.
SCENARIO 2 COPY GDPR
Facebook wants to roll out a new facialrecognition feature – but before hoovering up user data to do so, it asks permission. Users ignore the pop-up and, instead of capturing every detail of our faces and accidentally leaking the data to governments, Facebook isn’t allowed to turn our lives into a surveillance hell hole. A future that isn’t dystopian – now that’s novel.
Just as American regulators are struggling with what to do about privacy online, their European counterparts are readying for their own protective measures to come into play – the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is nothing if not timely. One easy way for American politicians to catch up to the Facebook scandal would be to copy over the GDPR rules. This wouldn’t be very onerous for the companies in question, as Facebook and Google need to meet the laws for us Europeans anyway, but it would have the bene t of kickstarting privacy protections across the pond.
“I think it would be a great start, as we’ve seen legislation in the US about ISPs being able to sell your data – here, we’re going in the wrong direction,” Tribe said. “Having something like GDPR or any strong privacy rules implemented with enforcement would be a great start.” However, it would only be the start: Facebook is still allowed to operate in Europe, after all, so it’s still making money out of our data.
Stoller says it’s worth waiting to see how successful GDPR is in Europe before dragging it into the US. “It’s hard to get right the rst time,” he said. “But I’m glad they’re doing it, and if I had to pick, implement it [in the US] or not, I’d probably say implement it.” That would mean the US would have to admit that Europe and its bureaucracy did something right, so don’t hold your breath.
SCENARIO 3 BREAK UP THE MONOPOLY
Facebook is still around, but it’s only a social network. The advertising business, Instagram
and WhatsApp have all been spun out into independent companies. Google’s reorganisation into Alphabet turns out to be prescient: Google is broken up into Search, Gmail and Ads, while its “moonshots” are dumped into a loss-making company, ending its expensive “balloon internet” and other creative projects.
Senator Lindsey Graham suggested to Zuckerberg at the hearing that Facebook is a monopoly: “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product that I can go sign up for?” They go to rivals such as Twitter and Snapchat, but frequently also to Instagram and WhatsApp – which are owned by Facebook. Is it time to break up Zuckerberg’s behemoth?
“First of all, you can just separate out Instagram and WhatsApp and the Facebook network, that’s the easy part,” said Stoller. “It wouldn’t take care of all the problems, but it would immediately reduce Facebook’s leverage over ad buyers, because now you’d have three places to buy ads instead of just one.”
Stoller also suggests banning any more acquisitions, saying there’s only so much consolidation they should be allowed. “You could do it by size threshold, so if you’re over a hundred million dollars in market cap, you can’t buy anyone,” he said. “But you could also just take a much more ethical view towards those mergers and acquisitions and then companies like Facebook which has significant track records of violating consent… you could just say: ‘you broke your agreement, so no more acquisitions for you’.”
SCENARIO 4 TECH INTERVENTIONS
Facebook no longer holds our data: it’s stored on a blockchain that it has no direct access to (just roll with it, okay?). Messages are all encrypted by default and all social media is interoperable, making it possible to interact with friends and family without having to join every platform.
The blockchain is the tech buzzword du jour, so it’s no wonder plenty are spitting it in social media’s direction. Could it help? “This isn’t about one tech and one platform, it’s about the structures we’ve put in place and our philosophy,” said Tribe. “Will technology like blockchain save us? No, the tools we’re using are based on surveillance culture, so unless it’s an actual pushback to surveillance culture… unless we actually shift the culture itself I think it’s going to be really hard to have any tech panacea.”
That said, she points to the success of messaging encryption, which is enabled by default on platforms such as Facebookowned WhatsApp but not its own Messenger. Make it easy, make it the default, and people will use it, Tribe believes.
Stoller suggests interoperability is the answer, “forcing Facebook to open its network so that you could communicate with your friends and family who are on Facebook… even if you weren’t on Facebook.” The idea is similar to how Trillian opened up the desktop messenger market, he noted.
“If they did that then all of a sudden you’d have a lot of competition in that market, kind of opening up the social grid.”
SCENARIO 5 NATIONALISE THE TECH GIANTS
Facebook and Google are declared necessary assets to the US government and nationalised. Travellers crossing the border into the US are no longer required to hand over their social media logins, as the government already has them. We’re all on Facebook, whether we want to be or not, with digital citizen cards linked to our profiles, and we’re all suddenly friends with Trump.
“To me it just puts shivers up my spine that we would take all of this information... and hand it over to the government,” said Tribe. “The idea they could take it over and buy it is really scary.”
She added: “We want a space that is not the government. As much as we’re scared of Facebook and what it’s doing with our information, Facebook can’t put me in jail or deny me at a border crossing. Information is power, and Facebook has a lot of power, but not as much as the government.”
“As much as we’re scared of Facebook and what it’s doing with our information, it can’t put me in jail or deny me at a border crossing”