Ideasroom

The existential threat of social media

Gehan Gunasekara argues entities such as Google and Facebook represent an existential challenge to nation states as well as an opportunity

I recently returned from attending the Facebook Spring 2019 Privacy Roundtable held over two days in Menlo Park, California. It is an invitation-only forum held annually. It turned out I was the only attendee from New Zealand this year which may have something to do with the tragic events in Christchurch in March and the heavy criticism Facebook has faced for its role in allowing objectionable material to be disseminated through its livestreaming facility. 

The roundtable was attended by around 50 delegates both from within the US and around the world attesting to the fact Facebook is a truly global organisation, with the bulk of its 2.7 billion users located in countries such as India, South America and Africa. The delegates included academics, advocacy and human rights organisations but, significantly, no regulators. Also present were large numbers of senior Facebook personnel including its chief privacy officer and vice president, as well as the leaders of its various marketing, design and development teams.

The event took place against the backdrop of the recently announced fine of up to US$5 billion expected to be imposed on the company by the Federal Trade Commission for privacy violations. (The Federal Trade Commission enforces consumer privacy rights in the US, which lacks a national privacy authority such as our Privacy Commissioner.) If enforced, this fine would constitute about 10 percent of Facebook’s global revenue. 

That, however, is not the only setback for the company. In the UK, the investigation into Cambridge Analytica over misuse of information gathered from Facebook users to manipulate the outcome of elections, is ongoing. Litigation there by Facebook, contesting fines imposed by the Information Commissioner, is pending. Privacy authorities in Europe as well as Canada have joined those lining up to bring their own investigations or actions.

The reason for this onslaught is obvious. Facebook’s highly interactive and revolutionary technologies have been made possible only through its engineers constructing a network of information flows unparalleled in human history. These include thousands of apps, personalised advertising, messaging and newsfeeds to name a few. Through them, more people around the world have been able to interact and exchange ideas than ever before. 

Facebook is both a result of globalisation as well as a driver of it. In the pell-mell rush to innovate, however, information leakages as well as some deliberate missteps (remember Facebook CEO Zuckerberg’s iteration not long ago that “cool people” didn’t care about privacy?) are hardly surprising. Now, Zuckerberg says he wants a global privacy standard that Facebook can adhere to. 

And here is the rub. With Facebook’s global status comes also a great responsibility. There is potential for harm (like hijacking of election advertising by subversive groups) as well as for good. Consider, for example, that Facebook partners not only with businesses but with innumerable social good and community organisations to facilitate their many activities. Indeed, for hundreds of millions of people in developing countries, including some authoritarian ones, Facebook is the only way of communicating and organising. For vulnerable groups, including the LBGT communities in these places, Facebook’s free encrypted services such as WhatsApp and private messaging are indispensable. 

Even in developed countries Facebook is a provider of critical infrastructure. When many organisations in New Zealand, in protest against Facebook’s conduct following the Christchurch shootings, symbolically pulled their advertising from Facebook they found there was no other equivalent medium for advertising. Corporations such as Google and Facebook have grown so powerful they now sit somewhere between being multi-national companies and nation states, and are certainly more powerful than most states. 

We have, of course, been here before. The emergence of corporations such as the East India Company which had its own army and navy also represented an existential threat in the 18th century. Countries were able to overcome the challenge through mechanisms such as creating the modern company structure which allowed anyone to incorporate a business. We need to devise something similar again as existing laws are simply not going to address the challenge represented by the likes of Facebook. 

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