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Two steps we can take to break up Facebook’s monopoly on our data

Kevin Rafferty says users of social media sites, especially Facebook, have to be particular about what personal information they share and who they connect with, and legislation should be enacted to give people ownership of their data 

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 April, 2018, 9:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 8:23am

When Mark Zuckerberg emerged to face questions about the harvesting of 50 million Facebook users’ personal information, he behaved like a sulky teenager.

“This was a major breach of trust,” Zuckerberg said. “And I’m really sorry that this happened.” Of course he is: Facebook lost billions in market value after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, and Zuckerberg’s personal fortune took a hit. But he did not say sorry to those whose personal information has made him one of the world’s richest people. 

Is it time to break up Facebook because of its extreme control of data – as the US Supreme Court ordered that Standard Oil be broken up in 1911 because of its control of 85 per cent of refined oil, in breach of antitrust legislation?

Whistle-blowers exposed some of the murky deeds of Cambridge Analytica, and asked whether its manipulations helped Donald Trump become US president or illegally tipped the balance in the Brexit referendum. Cambridge Analytica whistle-blower Christopher Wylie told British members of parliament that Brexit was won “by fraud”. He claimed the organisations that were campaigning to leave the European Union colluded to evade campaign finance limits. 

The revelations showed how much information Facebook regularly collects, as Cambridge Analytica took information from 270,000 participants in a quiz, opening the door to the personal details of 50 million people. Facebook is still collecting myriad information from its 2.2 billion users in ways they probably don’t even dream about.

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I have never joined Facebook, principally because I follow the ideas of my old Oxford college mate Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, that the internet should be open. Facebook is a walled garden, to which Zuckerberg and his senior executives have the key, where they grow plants to sell for profit. It is not, as Berners-Lee imagined, “an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere, to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries”.

The model of Facebook and similar social media companies is that users get free access, and Facebook gets your personal information to play with, package and sell. Tim CookApple’s chief executive, criticised mass data collection by Facebook and Google, accusing them of “gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it”.

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Barry Ritholtz, blogger and founder of Ritholtz Wealth Management, had useful advice for Facebook users who don’t want to delete their account but wish to secure their data. It requires a series of careful steps, including logging off each time you finish using Facebook, adjusting privacy and advertising settings to the most narrow, not clicking “like” on other sites, stripping out personal information and unfriending friends who aren’t really necessary. Ritholtz considers Facebook useful if used with caution and security, but recalls the adage from the early days of television – “if you are not paying for a product, then YOU (his caps) are the product”.

Big Zucker is watching: Facebook has realised Orwell’s dystopia

In The Guardian, data consultant and web designer Dylan Curran conducted a quick survey of his own information on Facebook, and found 600MB, equivalent to 400,000 Microsoft Word documents. And then there’s Google, which tracks you wherever you are and knows everything you have ever searched – even materials you have deleted – and knows things you have long forgotten.

Curran took advantage of Google’s option to download the data it stored on him (google.com/takeout), and it coughed up 5.5GB, or 3 million Word documents.

Zuckerberg pouted that there was a breach of trust by Cambridge Analytica in harvesting and manipulating information it had promised not to. But Facebook failed to protect the personal information it collected. A leading Facebook executive claimed in a 2016 memo that the company’s platform could open the way to bullies or even terrorists, but that connecting people justified the means. Zuckerberg promised the loophole Cambridge Analytica used had been closed, and talked of Facebook’s obligation to protect users’ information.

Zuckerberg’s promises conflict with the Facebook business model. Insiders admit there is a battle between Facebook’s security people and its executives. Facebook’s algorithm is supposedly so good at putting information about users together that it can predict what they want and how they will react before even they know it.

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Facebook and Google are the modern equivalents of Standard Oil, controlling two-thirds of US online advertising. In addition, the oligopolistic power of the giants, and their gobbling up of promising new players, discourages new initiative and innovation. Remember that the 1982 break-up of the telephone giant AT&T opened the way for the flowering of Silicon Valley.

Even so, breaking up Facebook and Google would be difficult. Governments would love to be able to tap into the data of the social media giants. In the US, antitrust laws are tightly defined and could not easily be applied.

Here’s how to see which apps have access to your Facebook data

But individuals should take control of their data, following Ritholtz’s cautions about what you share. Governments should reinforce this with laws, such as those the EU will introduce next month, giving consumers ownership of their information and enjoining internet companies to ensure that people can exercise that control.

The next step is to get the billions of people without internet into the connected global community. It is a travesty that a single company should hold the only key to that beautiful garden.

Kevin Rafferty studied at the same Oxford college as Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web. He does not have a Facebook account