BY: MARIKA ANNUNZIATA
Following the revelation of the Observer and of the New York Times of the violation of tens of millions of Facebook pages, and the acquisition and improper use of personal data for electoral purposes during the 2016 presidential elections, the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica once again fell into the spotlight in international news, as had previously happened during the Brexit referendum, the French presidential election and during Marine Le Pen’s political campaign.
The British firm paid to acquire the personal information of approximately 87 million users through an outside researcher, Aleksandr Kogan who, Facebook spokesmen said, claimed to be collecting the information for academic purposes, although the social network has not verified his claim. Said data were then used to sketch the psychological profiles of American voters in order to allegedly sway and steer the 2016 presidential election. The interviews held with former employees and contractors as well as the review of Cambridge Analytica files and emails, have revealed that the company not only handled Facebook data but still possesses most, if not all, of the personal information.
According to Facebook’s policies, the British consulting firm should not have been able to access personal information, yet the social network tycoon proceeded as though nothing was wrong and little was indeed done in that regard. On the contrary, Mark Zuckerberg attempted to bury the truth and then battened down the hatches apologising to all users involved in the scandal. It was too little too late.
Facebook’s chief executive, a hypothetical future candidate for the White House, indeed agreed to face the cameras as he testified on April 10th and 11th before the US Senate joint hearing in Washington and later before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
At the testimony, what was most evident was that some Senators did not understand how Facebook works. Is it safe to assert that this is the truth and the condition many social network users find themselves in? Maybe. However, it seems that Mark Zuckerberg has not been immune to the repercussions of the unacceptable breach of 87 millions of people privacy. In fact, he revealed, during the second day of being questioned in Capitol Hill, that his data was among those harvested in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Zuckerberg also implied that Facebook had only just found out about the large psychographics research team that Cambridge University has in place and he was allegedly shocked about that instance. “There’s a whole program associated with Cambridge, with a number of researchers who were building similar apps” to that designed by Aleksandr Kogan, he said.
Mr. Zuckerberg ultimately stated they needed to figure out whether “something bad” had been going on at Cambridge University, and implied that if the company discovers something amiss, Facebook may consider suing the institution.
At the end of the second day of his testimony, it was clear, nevertheless, that there are some areas that Facebook and its chief executive is not keen on calling into question. Queries about the profiling prowess of the social network were thoroughly bypassed. When asked who owns “the virtual you”, Zuckerberg replied that Facebook’s users own all the “content” they upload and it can be deleted at will. That, however, does not address the issue brought up at the hearing- that the profile that Facebook puts up about each person cannot be eradicated and users, seemingly, have no control over it.
Similarly, Zuckerberg on several occasions tried to dodge the question of how much information the company maintains about users’ browsing behavior. Zuckerberg dismissed the question for a minute straight before acknowledging the fact that Facebook tracks that data. When asked by the U.S. Representative for California’s 18th congressional district, Anna Eshoo, if he would consider changing the business model for Facebook in the interest of protecting individual privacy, he answered “I’m not sure what that means”.
Senators and Congressional representatives suggested new regulations can be the only acceptable response to the scandal. “This incident yet again shows that our laws aren’t working,” said Frank Pallone, the ranking member of the House Committee On Energy And Commerce.
The nature of the kind of regulations that should be put in place is, of course, where the real problems arise. The European regulators appear all at once the heroes of the day. Multiple Congress members inquired whether or not Zuckerberg would enforce the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the United States, a question he repeatedly ducked by promising GDPR “controls” rather than “protects”. The EU’s Regulation actually will enter into force in May 2018 and at the moment embodies the most advanced legislation on the matter in the world which will grant user new rights with regard to visibility, portability and right to cancel their data.
Overall it is fair to say that Facebook is dealing with its most severe downturn ever. The full magnitude of the data breach involving Facebook users is closely linked to the economic model of the company’s digital platform. But it still does not explain everything. The importance and prevalence of social networks such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram have revealed some serious issues. Social media treads a fine line between the utopian dreams of democracy and freedom of expression and the phantom of totalitarianism. China, a country looking to employ social networks for implementing public policies, has taken that step with instating facial recognition and “social ranking” programs, which allow social networks to track people and rank their social behaviours through the use of the internet.
In the United States, for the first time, there are talks about the ownership of the data: giving people their data back and the responsibility for deciding how those details would be processed online and for which purpose. The need to regulate this matter, has long appeared to be a whimsical notion proposed by the European Union, but it is now deemed an imperative for the US.
Marika Annunziata holds a Master’s Degree in law from LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome with a main concentration in European and international law. Marika is currently a trainee attorney and is studying in order to further pursue diplomatic career in Italy.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.