Centre for Internet & Society

A robust data protection law can prevent Facebook from manipulating users

The article by Anita Babu was published as a cover story in The Week on April 8, 2018. Pranesh Prakash was quoted.

Soon after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, a meme featuring Donald Duck began circulating on social media. It showed the cartoon character waking up to the news of the data leak, and then going back to sleep realising that the data was as “worthless” as he was.

The meme struck a chord with the younger generation, which has learnt to laugh at its own triviality. But, what it misses is the fact that technology companies can profit from even the most insignificant set of personal data.

Facebook, as its users know, is a marketing behemoth in the guise of a social media platform. By using it, people willingly give away information about themselves—their identity, relationship status, places visited and people met, political views, and so on. Facebook collates all this information, which may seem insignificant to an individual user, and then converts it into multiple databases.

These databases are lucrative, as it helps Facebook target ads at specific individuals or groups. The company earned as much as $40 billion in revenues last year by harvesting ‘worthless’ data. “Data collection at such a granular level is the problem,” said Nikhil Pahwa, Delhi-based digital rights activist and cofounder of Internet Freedom Foundation. “Data once collected is going to get stolen, lost, compromised or sold. Also, the linking of multiple data sets should not be allowed, because, at the end of the day, it has the potential to undermine democracies.”

The Cambridge Analytica (CA) files have revealed the extent to which tech companies like Facebook and Google profile users. “The fact that micro-targeting of ads were done through Facebook was a known fact,” said Bedasree, copy editor at the education services firm Careers360. “What is dangerous is that data theft can create identical virtual identities, like bots, which is happening. Since everything is digitised we would not be able to differentiate the real from the fake. And, there would be no accountability, because you have given your data to almost everyone.”

Micro-targeted ads have exposed Facebook to allegations of discrimination.  For instance, a lawsuit filed in the US last year said companies like Amazon and T-Mobile ran recruitment ads in Facebook, allowing only younger workers to see them. “There is a difference between influencing and manipulating people,” said Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the think tank Centre for Internet and Society. “While ‘influencing’ a person politically is something to be celebrated in a democracy, manipulating someone is dangerous…. The problem is not necessarily the content, but the way it is presented: whether it is done transparently and ethically.”

So, what does the CA scandal mean to users? “They must understand what they are trading for convenience,” said Mishi Choudhary, technology lawyer and legal director at Software Freedom Law Centre, New York. “The technology package, consisting of smartphones and social media companies, peddles a form of convenience that we are all buying into. This convenience ensures that a form of inhuman social control is established, not only in our buying habits, but in our democracy as well.”

Facebook’s algorithm to determine a user’s newsfeed—the list of updates that a user sees on her Facebook homepage—is a key tool in establishing this control. According to Facebook, the objective of the newsfeed is “to show you the stories that matter the most to you”. It means Facebook determines what a user should see or not see. Studies have shown that Facebook can tweak the algorithm in such a way that only certain types of stories appear in your newsfeed, thereby influencing your mood and behaviour. “The kind of powers that a company like Facebook has, is dangerous,” said Prakash. “Certainly, it is not just Facebook which is problematic in this regard, but all companies with similar business models.”

In 2016, India campaigned hard and upheld net neutrality in its attempt to stop Facebook's 'Free Basics', a coterie of free web services provided by the social media giant but with controls. Two years later, the data theft scandal, with Facebook at the heart of it, has put the spotlight on India's need for a robust data protection law.

Last year, the government had appointed a committee of experts under the chairmanship of Justice B.N. Srikrishna to look into the matter. The committee submitted a white paper early this year, which drew criticism from experts for its shortcomings.

Perhaps, the government should take cues from the current discourse on digital rights. The need of the hour, say experts, is a comprehensive, user-centric data protection law rooted in user consent. The government should hold companies liable for any failure in taking the consent of users and protecting their data.

The laws should focus on the business model of social media companies, which effectively sell people to advertisers. “The value in digital advertising lies in collecting information about peoples’ behaviour, on a scale previously unimagined in the history of humankind,” said Choudhary. “Gram for gram, the smartphone is the densest collection of sensors ever assembled. It’s a spy satellite in your pocket, aimed at you.”

Perhaps, the answer lies in building a technology ecosystem that encourages smaller players to take on giants like Facebook. A key to that would be implementing ‘interoperability’ between social networks. Said Hrishikesh Bhaskaran, member of Mozilla India’s Policy and Advocacy Task Force, which works to ensure privacy and data security: “This [interoperability] means that, just like one is able to send mails between Gmail and Yahoo platforms, a user should be able to interact between Facebook and Twitter. There is no technical reason why this cannot be allowed.”

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