Facebook, Its Excesses and Our Data

From time to time — and more and more often — warnings are raised about the distress caused by social networks or the polarization stirred up by the algorithms that direct information to users. Former Facebook executive Frances Haugen’s recent revelations confirmed that the social network had analyses of the distress caused by abusive behavior on its platform, but chose not to do anything that might harm the company’s performance. Facebook is a large public square with the instincts of a commercial company.

In crisis after crisis, companies such as Facebook, Google or Amazon react by brandishing a few actions to protect their corporate image. But what sustains the persistence of these threats related to social networks and other connected spaces is the lack of relevant and effective state laws.

Social networks depend on a crucial resource; their profitability is indeed linked to their ability to provide value to the billions of pieces of data that each of us produces simply due to our activity in the connected world. The processes by which Facebook creates value are based on compiling the countless traces that everyone leaves simply by being online. By optimizing its algorithms to maximize the time that users spend on its platforms, a social network like Facebook can maximize its revenue from targeted advertising.

The Laws

In both Europe and the United States, the need to put frameworks in place to regulate the practices of major internet platforms has now been recognized. Canadian legislators can no longer justify their inaction on the basis of American or European inertia.

There have long been laws requiring companies to ask for our consent when collecting and using our personal data. The main effect of these laws is the requirement to present us with lengthy documents that explain what we are consenting to. Everyone clicks on “I accept” when asked to subscribe to the terms of use, most often buried in hyperlinks on which only a few curious people ever bother to click. This is insufficient to regulate a collective resource like big data.

The social network and online sales markets have a strong tendency to let the dominant company swallow virtually all competition. These findings lead some to advocate the dismantling of corporate giants like Facebook. But it would be wrong to think that dismembering these corporate giants would be enough to create a framework that would appropriately meet the multiple challenges of the connected world.

The European Union is establishing a digital services law to review the responsibilities of users, platforms and public authorities. The aim is to better protect consumers and their fundamental rights while demanding more transparency from platforms. Clarifying the responsibilities of the big players is also addressed.

In the United States, the executive and legislative branches of government are now favorably aligned to make the U.S. into “a global leader in developing rules of the road for the digital economy.”

Today, the excesses observed in social networks motivate politicians to act. But most activities based in whole or in part on digital technologies, whether autonomous objects, e-commerce or so-called “smart” communication systems, work by compiling the massive data generated by the movements of connected people and objects. The implementation of fair and effective laws requires the recognition of the crucial role that the valuation of big data plays in the digital economy.

Algorithmic Transparency

As with any complex environment, social networks are the best and the worst of spaces. It has long been known that this is the case with all public spaces. We have learned to develop laws to regulate what happens in our asphalt and concrete public places. The challenge is to design and enforce laws for digital public spaces made of networks and massive data processing. We cannot hope to regulate this with old tools. States must also innovate!

In her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future,” Shoshana Zuboff explains that the dominant internet companies’ business models are based on capturing the value of the big data generated by the movements of all those who participate in the connected world. National laws must therefore impose guidelines and transparency at the level of the economic interests associated with these processes.

Like any potentially dangerous object, online platforms must be held to standards commensurate with the risks they pose to populations. States must equip themselves with the tools to regulate processes based on the processing of big data. Laws need to impose more transparency and accountability from those who generate value by mobilizing algorithmic processes. Expecting large web companies to regulate themselves is naïve. It is up to states to create a playing field that is consistent with the characteristics of digital environments. This adjustment has become urgent.

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