Regulation over data is needed, but the horse has already bolted

As the Facebook scandal heads into a second week calls for regulation and greater oversight in the industry are getting louder, but we’re not too sure it will make a difference.

Jamie Davies

March 26, 2018

6 Min Read
Regulation over data is needed, but the horse has already bolted

As the Facebook scandal heads into a second week calls for regulation and greater oversight in the industry are getting louder, but we’re not too sure it will make a difference.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the worst man on the planet, Facebook is the most despicable company around and the curtain covering the shadowy corners of the social media machine has been pulled back. Joe and Jane Bloggs feel violated, but the government and European Commission are here to save you.

This has been the promise over the last couple of weeks. Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Matt Hancock has said he will toughen data protection laws to hold the social media giants accountable and the upcoming GDPR from the European Commission promises to put the consumer back in control of their digital life. We have two problems with these promises, firstly, is it even possible to regain control and secondly, do users even want it back?

The posturing from politicians and bureaucrats in general should hardly be surprising. Now the curtain has been pulled back on the financial models supporting the internet economy, the self-righteous public servants are here to capitalise on the insecurities of the general public and punish the profit-machines. The promise is simple; you will be in control of your digital life and will hold the internet capitalists to account.

While this is a worthwhile promise, we do not believe it is possible. For those who would like to understand the breadth of information which Facebook has on you we would recommend downloading your Facebook archive, and then you have to realise this is simply one source. You have other social media giants, Google and Twitter for example who will also have an online profile built of you, and then the dozens, or hundreds, or perhaps thousands of other organizations you have spilt the beans to.

This information might of course be quite simple and harmless. Your name for instance, or your address. This is not a violation of your privacy as it was publicly available information in the phone book before the internet was even a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. But when your date and place of birth is thrown in, or your salary bracket, people start to get a bit worried. Social media might be the one getting the flak for the moment, but it is only a question of time before the TV and content industry gets dragged into the debate; Sky’s AdSense platform is an example of how granular these organizations can go.

These are just the companies you know about as well. Think about every app you have downloaded onto your smartphone, and not just the ones you have on your device now. How many times have you downloaded a game only to realise it was terrible and delete it 10 minutes later? By downloading the app, you agreed to the terms and conditions which probably meant you gave permission to the developer to use your personal information for commercial services. Do you remember the name of every developer?

To take control of the their digital life, the user would have to know and control all information about that individual which is in the connected library. This is pretty much an impossible task unless today is the first time you’ve gone online. We’ve been giving away this information for too long, to too many people and in too many places. Regulators and posturing politicians can preach of controls and a revolution, but these are nothing but empty promises which have about as much chance of becoming reality as Ozzy Osbourne winning the London Marathon.

The next point we question is whether the consumer actually wants things to change. Right now people are disgusted about an invasion of privacy, but the question is whether these people would want to go back to the way the world was before the walled-garden business model was created. Would you like to go back to subscriptions?

This is a fundamental component of the digital economy; you get things for free because there is an exchange in value between you and the organization which provides you a service. This service might be a social media platform, or it might be a news website. For transparency reasons we should also point out this is also how is able to continue to operate, but the value you are offering is the ability to sell advertising and promotional solutions to third parties.

The word transparency is a key one here, as while many would assume (perhaps for some once it had been pointed out to them) that the only reason these services are free is because of the value exchange. It is perhaps the depth of this information which has shocked. The internet giants created their own issue here however, as because there was not transparency from day one the profit-machine behind the curtain only got more powerful and scary. Had these companies educated the user on how it made money, the information which has been released over the last few weeks would not have been so overwhelming.

Maybe this story is the straw but broke the camel’s back, or it might just be the first time users have been confronted with this information. Some are happy to live in ignorance as long as they are happy and it isn’t harming them. Facebook was free and it was fun; what’s the issue. Deep down, most people would have known how the platform was making money, but the complexities of the relationships with third-parties, the granularity of data and the power of data science technologies to make accurate assumptions about behaviour and preferences would have been the shock.

Users will need to understand what information they are giving away at the point they are giving it away, and this needs to be made much more obvious. That said, we still don’t believe that being as transparent as possible will change anything really; the general public are used to getting these services for free now and no-one likes to pay for anything when they don’t have to.

Facebook was in the wrong as was Cambridge Analytica. We don’t think it will be too long before other scandals are unearthed as well, but it doesn’t mean the internet is going to change. Regulators will need to more closely police what is going on, and the internet giants will have to redevelop the trust relationship with the user, but don’t fool yourself; the user will never have control of their own digital lives, it’s too complicated, and if the option is to go back to paying for things, they probably won’t want to.

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