Facebook-Cambridge Analytica row raises questions about regulation, privacy

Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook shared data with a Cambridge-based Russian researcher, Aleksandr Kogan, in 2013. He in turn sold the data on approximately 50 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica (CA), a political consulting firm that works on elections in several countries across the world.

That, in short, is the crux of the Facebook-CA fracas which lopped nearly $50 billion from the social media giant’s market capitalisation last week. That is a body blow for a firm that has hardly any physical assets (about $14 billion). Its entire business is built on the perception of its value. Facebook’s bread, butter and jam or $39.9 billion of its $40.6 billion revenues in 2017 came from advertising targeted at its 2.1 billion monthly active users. The more they reveal of themselves, their preferences, the more they share, the sharper advertisers can target them and the more the revenues Facebook makes.

Much of the hullabaloo then raises two questions from the Indian perspective.

One, should we finally acknowledge the power of social media/search firms to aid and harm democracy just like mainstream media firms and start treating them as such? There are several arguments against this—the most important being that these are “tech platforms” and cannot be treated like, say, The Times of India or Dainik Jagran. That is not entirely correct.

Just like mass media, Facebook, Google or Twitter too try to get audiences and monetise them—either though advertising, search or pay revenues. If there weren’t 2.1 billion people on Facebook opening up their hearts advertisers would not be interested in it. Just like mass media, social media too has the power to amplify a message. But unlike mass media it is not governed by laws of defamation, libel et al. The result is fake news. Many recent riots, lynchings and conflicts in India have turned out to be the result of a fake video or WhatsApp message.

There are murmurs about self-regulation. But it doesn’t always work, especially in a largely ad-supported ecosystem. In newspapers, self-regulation works but not hundred per cent. In news television it is a mess, surmises a report from The Hoot earlier this week. That is not surprising given the texture of the medium. There are 389 24-hour news channels in India. The pressure to fill those hours makes them create news, opinions, history or even embellish the truth. To avoid a similar situation it is time for digital publishers to come together and work on a punitive, actionable code of conduct that applies to anyone putting out content online.

The second question the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica controversy raises is of privacy. The Aadhaar case is still being heard in the Supreme Court. Once a judgment comes many of the questions about state or private collection of citizens’ data should get clarified. But here is a not-so-popular point of view. When you sign up and discuss your feelings, thoughts, ideology on a public platform, share pictures of yourself, your family and friends, do you wonder or worry about who is paying for this privilege? More than 2.1 billion people talk about everything online without paying a cent. If the company that offers that service monetises the content why should it be a surprise? To use a quote that Scott Goodson, co-founder of New York-based marketing agency Strawberry Frog used in a book—“If you’re not paying for it; you are the product.”

Don’t get this wrong. To my mind privacy is a fundamental right. But with it comes the responsibility to guard it—a caveat emptor of sorts. It is unrealistic to expect a large corporation, set up to deliver returns to shareholders, to guard your privacy. To be profitable and grow Facebook has to monetise what is on its platform. Yet Facebook wouldn’t be Facebook without its 2.1 billion users. They both feed off each other in a loosely defined ecosystem that has no precedent.

There is an inherent conflict in our voracious use of social media and digital platforms and our need for privacy. Till that conflict is resolved episodes like Cambridge Analytica will not go away.
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