By Sharon Gomez
It’s hard to believe that a website, which began as a “hot or not” list for Harvard students has now become one of the most influential and controversial social media platforms of the day. In 2003, Facemash allowed visitors to compare two student pictures side-by-side and decide who was more attractive. In 2018, Facebook connects more than 2.2 billion people, a global nation that reshaped political campaigns, the advertising business, and daily life as we know it.
But this success is not without its scandal. In that same year, Facebook saw the Cambridge Analytica fiasco, political manipulation, proliferation of fake news, and heavy data breaches. Mark Zuckerberg, its founder, continues to say he’s sorry and insists that the company can do better. However, data transfer for value is Facebook’s business model and security and privacy directly contradict that model. The reason why Facebook had more than a 90% share of growth in the digital advertising space in 2017 is because they have a 360-view of user activity. Protecting private data is contrary to Facebook’s whole reason for being. As long as Zuckerberg chooses profit over data security, it is not in the public interest for Facebook to self-regulate.
In Britain, Facebook has become third only to the BBC and ITV as a source of news and this is worrying considering the role they play in the spread of disinformation, particularly during election season. Facebook has essentially put democracy at risk by allowing voters to be targeted with fake news and personalised “dark adverts” from anonymous actors. In addition, one of the most important advantages Facebook has over traditional advertising media is the compilation of “shadow profiles” which contain all the information that other users and data collectors have supplied about Facebook users. Internal emails show that the company goes to great lengths to acquire such data and that it is kept secret from their subjects.
Recognising this, a House of Commons committee has called for Facebook to be regulated in the same way a media company is regulated so that it would face the same strict advertising regulations that govern television, print, and other media types. The Committee’s recommendations include a compulsory Code of Ethics for tech companies, an independent regulator with powers to launch legal action against companies breaching code, and a tax on tech companies in the UK to support this new regulator. The Committee also found that British election laws were not “fit for purpose” and were vulnerable to interference by hostile foreign actors. For example, evidence indicates that an organisation called the Mainstream Network urged voters to lobby their MP to support a no-deal Brexit and the law does not require such actors to identify themselves. Current legislation falls woefully short and needs to be updated, but as is usually the case, policy and law are slow to change.
Full Fact, a UK fact-checking organisation, said it welcomed the Committee’s recommendations and made suggestions for an overhaul of current election and political advertising rules fit for the digital age. These include (1) having a public database of online political advertisements, provided in real time, with full information on content targeting, reach and spend and (2) the creation of the aforementioned Code of Ethics in a transparent way that involves the public – not just tech companies and the government.
Facebook has been labelled as “digital gangsters” and it is clear that the era of self-regulation for tech companies must end immediately. But unless swift and strict action is taken against Zuckerberg and his company, they’ll always consider themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law.