Face­book and the fu­ture of our on­line pri­vacy

Viet Nam News - - INSIGHT - Jef­frey D. Sachs*

NEW YORK — Chris Hughes, a co­founder of Face­book, re­cently noted that the pub­lic scru­tiny of Face­book is “very much over­due”, declar­ing that “it’s shock­ing to me that they didn’t have to an­swer more of these ques­tions ear­lier on”. Lead­ers in the in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy sec­tor, es­pe­cially in Europe, have been warn­ing of the abuses by Face­book (and other por­tals) for years. Their in­sights and prac­ti­cal rec­om­men­da­tions are es­pe­cially ur­gent now.

Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg’s tes­ti­mony be­fore the US Sen­ate did lit­tle to shore up pub­lic con­fi­dence in a com­pany that traf­fics in its users’ per­sonal data. The most telling mo­ment of tes­ti­mony came when Illi­nois Se­na­tor Richard Durbin asked whether Zucker­berg would be com­fort­able shar­ing the name of his ho­tel and the peo­ple he had mes­saged that week, ex­actly the kind of data tracked and used by Face­book. Zucker­berg replied that he would not be com­fort­able pro­vid­ing the in­for­ma­tion. “I think that may be what this is all about,” Durbin said. “Your right to pri­vacy.”

Crit­ics of Face­book have been mak­ing this point for years. Ste­fano Quintarelli, one of Europe’s top IT ex­perts and a lead­ing ad­vo­cate for on­line pri­vacy (and, un­til re­cently, a mem­ber of the Ital­ian Par­lia­ment), has been a per­sis­tent and prophetic critic of Face­book’s abuse of its mar­ket po­si­tion and mis­use of on­line per­sonal data. He has long cham­pi­oned a pow­er­ful idea: that each of us should re­tain con­trol of our on­line pro­file, which should be read­ily trans­fer­able across por­tals. If we de­cide we don’t like Face­book, we should be able to shift to a com­peti­tor with­out los­ing the links to con­tacts who re­main on Face­book.

For Quintarelli, Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica’s abuse of data ac­quired from Face­book was an in­evitable con­se­quence of Face­book’s ir­re­spon­si­ble busi­ness model. Face­book has now ac­knowl­edged that Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica is not alone in hav­ing ex­ploited per­sonal pro­files ac­quired from Face­book.

In per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tions with me, Quintarelli says that the Euro­pean Union’s Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion, which takes ef­fect on May 25, fol­low­ing six years of prepa­ra­tion and de­bate, “can serve as guid­ance in some as­pects”. Under the GDPR, he notes, “non-com­pli­ant or­gan­i­sa­tions can face heavy fines, up to 4 per cent of their rev­enues. Had the GDPR al­ready been in place, Face­book, in or­der to avoid such fines, would have had to no­tify the au­thor­i­ties of the data leak as soon as the com­pany be­came aware of it, well in ad­vance of the last US elec­tion.”

Quintarelli em­pha­sises that, “Ef­fec­tive com­pe­ti­tion is a pow­er­ful tool to in­crease and de­fend bio­di­ver­sity in the dig­i­tal space.” And here, the GDPR should help, be­cause it “in­tro­duces the con­cept of pro­file porta­bil­ity, whereby a user can move her pro­file from one ser­vice provider to an­other, like we do when port­ing our tele­phone pro­file — the mo­bile phone num­ber — from one op­er­a­tor to an­other.”

But “this form of own­er­ship of one’s own pro­file data,” Quintarelli con­tin­ues, “is cer­tainly not enough.” Just as im­por­tant is “in­ter­con­nec­tion: the op­er­a­tor to which we port our pro­file should be in­ter­con­nected to the source op­er­a­tor so that we don’t lose con­tact with our on­line friends. This is pos­si­ble to­day thanks to tech­nolo­gies like IPFS and Solid, de­vel­oped by the web in­ven­tor Tim Bern­ers-Lee.”

Sarah Spiek­er­mann, a pro­fes­sor at the Vienna Univer­sity of Eco­nom­ics and Busi­ness (WU), and Chair of its In­sti­tute for Man­age­ment In­for­ma­tion Sys­tems, is an­other pi­o­neer of on­line pri­vacy who has long warned about the type of abuses seen with Face­book. Spiek­er­mann, a global au­thor­ity on the traf­fick­ing of our on­line iden­ti­ties for pur­poses of tar­geted ad­ver­tis­ing, po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda, pub­lic and pri­vate sur­veil­lance, or other ne­far­i­ous pur­poses, em­pha­sizes the need to crack down on “per­sonal data mar­kets.”

“Ever since the World Eco­nomic Fo­rum started to dis­cuss per­sonal data as a new as­set class in 2011,” she told me, “per­sonal data mar­kets have thrived on the idea that per­sonal data might be the ‘new oil’ of the dig­i­tal econ­omy as well as — so it seems — of pol­i­tics”. As a re­sult, “more than a thou­sand com­pa­nies are now in­volved in a dig­i­tal in­for­ma­tion value chain that har­vests data from any on­line ac­tiv­ity and de­liv­ers tar­geted con­tent to on­line or mo­bile users within roughly 36 sec­onds of their en­try into the dig­i­tal realm.” Nor is it “just Face­book and Google, Ap­ple or Ama­zon that har­vest and use our data for any pur­pose one might think of,” Spiek­er­mann says. “‘Data man­age­ment plat­forms’ such as those op­er­ated by Acx­iom or Or­a­cle BlueKai pos­sess thou­sands of per­sonal at­tributes and so­cio-psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files about hun­dreds of mil­lions of users.”

While Spiek­er­mann thinks “per­sonal data mar­kets and the use of the data within them should be for­bid­den in their cur­rent form,” she thinks the GDPR “is a good mo­ti­va­tor for com­pa­nies around the world to ques­tion their per­sonal data shar­ing prac­tices.” She also notes that “a rich ecosys­tem of pri­vacy-friendly on­line ser­vices is start­ing to be up and run­ning.” A study by a class of WU grad­u­ate stu­dents “bench­marked the data col­lec­tion prac­tices of our top on­line ser­vices (such as Google, Face­book or Ap­ple) and com­pared them to their new pri­vacy-friendly com­peti­tors.” The study, she says, “gives ev­ery­one a chance to switch ser­vices on the spot.”

Face­book’s im­mense lob­by­ing power has so far mostly fended off the prac­ti­cal ideas of Quintarelli, Spiek­er­mann, and their fel­low cam­paign­ers. The re­cent scan­dal, how­ever, has opened the pub­lic’s eyes to the threat that in­ac­tion poses to democ­racy it­self.

The EU has taken the lead in re­spond­ing, thanks to its new pri­vacy stan­dards and pro­posed greater tax­a­tion of Face­book and other ped­dlers of on­line per­sonal data. Yet more is needed and fea­si­ble. Quintarelli, Spiek­er­mann, and their fel­low champions of on­line ethics of­fer us a prac­ti­cal path to an In­ter­net that is trans­par­ent, fair, demo­cratic, and re­spect­ful of per­sonal rights. — Project Syn­di­cate

*Jef­frey D. Sachs, Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor at Columbia Univer­sity, is Di­rec­tor of Columbia’s Cen­tre for Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment and the UN Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment So­lu­tions Net­work.

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