Alexandra Tselios

Facebook won’t slow down, but can a regulatory body catch up?

Facebook

This week, we’ve discovered two things. Facebook has no control over itself, and Congress has no idea how to police it. What we need is an impartial regulatory body, and we need it now.

 

 

It’s a time of consolidation to decide where we sit in the age of data harvesting, social media and the ability to access social media platforms for free. This, of course, has arrived on the back of the most recent (but not only) data breach in Facebook’s relatively young history. As a business owner whose business is built on understanding what audiences want, I am conflicted by both the public response, and Mark Zuckerberg’s performance in the face of Congress.

It was similarly difficult to watch Congress pose simplistic questions that illustrated what many of us fear: that the highest powers possess a complete lack of understanding about the complexities of this new world they are trying to legislate.

With the analysis and data made available to them, including the Facebook founder in person, it is likely that if they cannot grasp what to do with and how to view Facebook, then everyday users around the world have minimal hope. Unless, of course, they accept the onus is on them to be aware of what digital platforms they use and how. Regarding regulation, it is clear that no regulation could effectively come from Government.

One thing I have learnt this week is that I am less likely to accept the theory that Facebook is an evil organisation out to mine our data and control our elections. On day two of the hearing, Zuckerberg went into detail around how critical requirements for their tracking are primarily underpinned by two main functions: ad targeting and security.

Yes, they want to have a monopoly, yes they want to grow rapidly and influence as many worldwide regions and outcomes as possible, and have been able to do so with minimal governmental or organisational scrutiny to date. It is also clear leadership does not have a full grasp on their own operations, critically around the following key points discussed during the hearing:

  • Zuckerberg did not know in detail the kinds of information Facebook is collecting from their own users, or whether or not those without Facebook accounts were being tracked off-site;
  • Facebook is not across how many apps require auditing nor how many firms had been sold data by Dr Kogan;
  • Zuckerberg did not have a complete grasp in regards to how the FTC had fining authority, or that Facebook could not have received fines regarding the 2011 consent order;
  • he was not entirely sure for how long deleted data was backed up (the site says 90 days);
  • he was not entirely across major court cases regarding privacy policies against Facebook;
  • he said he supports the Honest Ads Act, but was vague in response to how America could emulate Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation;
  • he could not answer questions regarding shadow profiles that pre-date a Facebook account and was unable to satisfactorily respond to whether or not those without Facebook accounts could opt out of data collection;
  • what is more evident, that like many technology giants and builders of robotics, they are being mismanaged and dealing with rapidly evolving AI technologies, unknown cybersecurity risks and navigating scrutiny by senators who don’t understand the complexities of the current digital age.

The Cambridge Analytica data breach may have brought to light the reality of cybersecurity and our data safety (including the data of Mark Zuckerberg) with the admission that Facebook scans the private messages, images and links we send to each other daily as a replacement for our use of text messaging, or, God-forbid, actually calling someone. It was finally the impetus of The Australian Privacy commissioner launching a formal investigation into Facebook.

But then what?

This is not the first example of data being misused in connection with Facebook and a lack of transparency. A handful of examples include a German court ruling that Facebook’s use of data is illegal and does not adequately secure the informed consent of its users. In 2017, France’s privacy watchdog ordered WhatsApp to stop sharing data with Facebook. In 2013, Facebook admitted to exposing over six million users’ email addresses and phone numbers with Facebook, saying “We currently have no evidence that this bug has been exploited maliciously and we have not received complaints from users or seen anomalous behaviour on the tool or site to suggest wrongdoing.”

In 2017, when a writer for The Guardian and Tinder user requested her personal data under the EU Data Protection Law, she received 800 pages of data. 800 pages of data that became tangible evidence of her journey with the Tinder app and the thousands of messages and matches that had occurred on their platform.

Similarly, when I personally delve into the data Facebook has on me, I can see how they advertise and tailor their communications to me. They are spot on, after 11 years of my being a part of their platform. Facebook knows not only a great deal about me, but also provides me examples of the reality of my time online. It knows that I am more likely to consume content from TechCrunch than Mamamia, it is aware that my hobbies include going to the theatre and “home” which I assume is their palatable way of saying I am too reclusive.

To maintain a monopoly Facebook spend a lot of time researching how AI can continually impact our lives… Like many disruptive business models, it is a hybrid of overlapping services that many companies may play in but not necessarily dominate collectively.

Embarrassingly, it knows how much I love watching RuPaul’s Drag Race and documentaries, and it even states the pages I am most likely to engage with on Facebook. It never shows me any advertising associated with babies, toddlers or weddings. It gets some things wrong, such as the suggestions to check out Ribs and Rumps (I am a pescatarian), or the live shows currently available in Melbourne (I live in Sydney).

It’s not perfect, but it’s fairly accurate.

I am comfortable with its knowledge of me, it means that the advertising I am exposed to on a probability scale is fairly likely to be spot on. It means that advertisers have a lower probability of wasting their money on me with products and services I have no interest in.

#DeleteFacebook is a trending hashtag with users suggesting they connect only on Twitter or Instagram (9% of Facebook users have deleted their accounts). Facebook owns Instagram, Twitter similarly collects data about us and tracks in much the same way as Facebook. I am aware of the risks, the likelihood of data breaches, hacking, and try to take precautions. My biggest precaution? Education and constant learning about the space and its applications which are generally consistent regardless of platform. Zuckerberg himself uses tape over his laptop camera, and says he sees their privacy policies as standard across the industry.

To date, a survey from Techpinions has revealed how US consumers are responding to the recent scandal with:

  • 9% deleting their Facebook accounts entirely;
  • 17% deleting the Facebook app from their phones;
  • 35% saying they are now using Facebook less due to privacy concerns.

We live in an age where targeting users accurately and with verified data sources is the holy grail, and we use these platforms for free. That is the price. Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, recently addressed these exact issues and stated that if users want total privacy and to truly ensure secured encrypted activity then the platform would likely have to implement a paid model. I am unsure of how many of the two billion plus active Facebook users would pay for access to their friends and family.

To maintain a monopoly (Zuckerberg struggled to name a competitor, but also said he didn’t think they had a monopoly) Facebook, much like Google, spend a lot of time researching how artificial intelligence can continually impact our lives and what products can they bring to market that will be underpinned by that research. Like many disruptive business models, including mine, it is a hybrid of overlapping services that many companies may play in but not necessarily dominate collectively.

Zuckerberg’s responses and the calibre of questions from Congress showed that they are not the right people to ask – or answer – such questions. The hearing also showed Zuckerberg may not even possess enough control to respond to them either.

The real question is when will informed regulation be required that is not intrinsically linked to Google, Facebook or Amazon; one equally not guided by conspiracy theories around how technology is applied by these companies (how this data is used on the dark web is a different story and, again, one that I am unsure these companies or governments know how to navigate).

Google’s contract with the Pentagon has been recently discussed, making clear the US government is not the right force to initiate this. We live in a world where bots spread propaganda across Twitter to influence political outcomes, and yet Facebook can be found in a series of data analysis to be more partisan than Twitter. It is clear Silicon Valley may be influencing the narrative and controlling the data – but they are currently unable to control the consequential impact it has on misleading public conversation, political outcomes and cybersecurity.

There are few who know; Mark Zuckerberg’s responses and the calibre of questions from Congress showed that they are not the right people to ask – or answer – such questions. Both days of the hearing also showed Mark Zuckerberg may not even possess enough control to respond to them either, with the most alarming point being his ambiguity regarding shadow profiles.

We quickly require an agnostic open-source body that has no commercial ties with these companies or government, but who do have a solid understanding around how artificial neural networks work, cyberpsychology, cybersecurity, and how robotics and AI weapons can be managed in the age of modern warfare.

The least of our issues, collectively, is that Facebook knows how much you Facebook-stalk your ex.

 

Alexandra Tselios

Founder and CEO of The Big Smoke, Alexandra oversees the leading digital content platform in both Australia and the USA. As a social and technology commentator, she is interviewed most days of the week on radio and appears on ABC's The Drum and ABC News24. Alexandra is also a Director of NFP think tank, Plus61J, which explores the political and social ties between Australia and Israel; and sits on the board of Estate-Planning FinTech start-up NowSorted.

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