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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.


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.


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.


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’.”


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.”


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”

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