Business

We need to talk about Facebook

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(Image via Jakob Steinschaden / flickr.)

Social media data abuses by tech giants and political parties will continue as long as "you're the product", writes John Passant.

I LOVE FACEBOOK.

It allows me to communicate with friends and family in Australia and across the globe. 

It keeps me informed of world events, mostly through the prism of journals of record friends and I share. It enables me to debate with other left wingers. It is a great tool for organising protests and finding out where they are and how they went.

I hate Facebook. Without an ad blocker, I would be inundated with advertisements. Even so, I still get recommendations from some business sites that friends have liked. Worse than that, I do those stupid quizzes and tests, things like What you would look like as a member of the opposite sex?

Independent Australia has explored various possibilities around the Cambridge Analytica (CA) controversy. 

As David Donovan says:

‘It all comes down to data mining driving incredibly sophisticated targeting of voters.’ 

As early as April last year, Michelle Morgan was warning us in IA that ‘the big data company that helped steal the U.S. election for Donald Trump is now in Australia meeting with the Liberal Party’.

At a national level, both Labor and the Liberals have denied they have used CA. I wonder if State or Territory branches of those parties may have. And what about other parties and politicians?  

What about other similar businesses?

Fergus Hunter in the Sydney Morning Herald says:

But Cambridge Analytica is far from the only business involved in the booming data mining and micro-targeting sector. i360, a conservative-aligned platform funded by the U.S. billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, is now being deployed in Australia and its practical value was on display in the South Australian election campaign over recent weeks.

The Victorian Liberals are gearing up to use i360 in the election there later this year. Why the political interest in these data gatherers and analysts? As Fergus Hunter says, it is about using the ‘personal information and data science to deliver finely tuned, highly targeted campaigns’.

I wonder which data analyst Labor uses? The Greens? Can they guarantee this information is gathered both legally and passes the "pub test"?

What can we do in response? The first reaction of many was to suggest leaving Facebook.

For addicts like me and others interested in what is going on in the world, Facebook is now indispensable both as an informational and organisational tool.  

I won’t be leaving Facebook. I doubt that too many of the 2.2 billion active Facebook users will be leaving either.

This all cuts close to the bone in other ways. How else can articles in IA reach a wider audience than through using social media sites like Facebook and Twitter? It was IA after all that was one of the few media outlets to alert us to the fact that the Liberal Party met with CA in 2017.

Then there are the technical and legal "solutions". Yes, I can change my settings. Yes, I can remove app permissions and not log in to ones that require access to Facebook. Yes, Facebook can tell us that CA had no right to sell our data. At the time, of course, gathering friends’ information via Facebook apps was okay.

Would reading the terms and conditions have made any difference to your use of Facebook and the various data gathering apps disguised as quizzes? Who reads the terms and conditions anyway let alone understands them?

Facebook’s business model is simple. You are the product that it retails to advertisers and others. And very profitable it is too. Almost 99 per cent of Facebook’s $16 billion in profit comes from advertisers.

The UK Privacy Commissioner recently raided the offices of CA. The Australian Information and Privacy Commissioner has asked Facebook ‘whether any personal information of Australians was involved’ and is waiting for its response.

Zuckerberg may appear or be forced to appear before Parliaments in the UK and Europe — and various agencies investigating the breach of privacy.

Will our Government drag Zuckerberg before the Senate? The silence so far is very telling.

Further, political parties are exempted from the Commonwealth Privacy Act. Both major parties have defended this exemption.

The exemption is, as Kelsey Munro reported in The Guardian:

‘… sufficiently broad to cover the political activities of a company like CA if it was contracted by a political party in Australia, and Australians had no legal way of finding out what personal information such companies or the parties held on them.’

What to do? Abolish the exemption of the political parties from the Privacy Act? Tighten up the privacy laws to protect our information and in doing that make it a criminal offence to use or sell our Facebook and similar data? Gaol CEOs whose companies collect or use our information? What else could we do?

Let’s call Zuckerberg before the Senate to testify under oath about how many Australians had their data breached.  

What about nationalising Facebook Australia or setting up a government-funded independent competitor — much like the ABC in the media industry? At first blush, this might have some appeal since it removes the profit motive from considerations.

However, as the ABC shows, such responses do not remove the "independent" body from capitalism itself, the way society is organised, or from government interference. On top of that, no doubt, this "competent" Government – a Government that has given us such a magnificent National Broadband Network – would, of course, design a wonderful national communications network (NCN) and, just like the ABCC, fully fund it to do its job properly.

The spectre of the Chinese Government’s approved social media alternatives such as WeChat, Renren and Weibo, also hangs over such an Australian Government alternative to Facebook. Could you trust the Turnbull Government not to manipulate the flow of information? Could you trust any Government keen on re-election not to use data from such a network for its own political purposes? 

The independent body would censor itself as the ABC does in its quest for so-called independence and objectivity. A government NCN would be a controller rather than a communicator of information.

Facebook is a global phenomenon and network. Any government competitor or other measures would need to be replicated internationally for real impact and to allow for the flow of all views. There is no way enough foreign governments would set up a competitor to Facebook to make it viable.

The real problem with Facebook is the profit motive. Facebook’s raison d'être is making money out of your information and stored data. To reiterate: you are the product.

The problem with governments is also the profit motive. The objective of most political parties is to manage the system by getting elected. They will see information and data, no matter how it is gathered, as important for that goal. And they will be tempted to manipulate the message to ensure re-election.

Until we, as a society, put people before profit the abuses that CA has exposed will continue both by tech giants and political parties. I will continue using Facebook as an aid in the fight to win a better world.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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