Christchurch

In wake of scandal and tragedy, Facebook privacy crackdown needed

It’s been a year – long enough to have forgotten the details of that Cambridge Analytica story that was all over the news last March.  

A refresher: In early 2018, Canadian-born Christopher Wylie went public with allegations that the British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook users, and shaped that data into social media strategies to support Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The scandal was among the first privacy issues involving Facebook, but it certainly hasn’t been the last. 

A+ for promises, D- for action

Though we have seen some efforts from Facebook to promote transparency – such as a new app to be rolled out in June that will show who paid for political ads and whom they’re targeting – Facebook is well known for making big promises about user privacy and keeping none of them. Remember when they promised a “delete your history” button in May 2018, after the backlash from Cambridge Analytica? It’s still nowhere to be seen. And that lack of follow-through is oh-so typical of Facebook. 

A wasted year

In the last year, legislators in the States have at least started to have serious conversations about what a national privacy law might look like. The American focus is on trying to rein in the power of big tech. But fast-forward 12 months and Canadian politicians have failed to create anything resembling a national data strategy. Probably because they’re more focused on winning the upcoming election than on protecting citizens’ privacy.  

What politicians should do is take Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation and Canadianize it, effectively cracking down on rule-breakers like Facebook with major fines that would have a real impact on their practices.  

Tragedy broadcast on social media

A horrific tragedy unfolded in New Zealand last week, where a terrorist attacked a mosque in Christchurch. Because Facebook is still basically a free-for-all of information dissemination, videos of the deadly shooting were live-streamed millions of times – almost instantly – on social media.  

Once digital data is created and replicated, it’s nearly impossible to control; people have created more data in the last couple of years than in all human history, and criminals are swimming in a sea of personal information that can be easily exploited.  

Who’s accountable?

New Zealand internet service providers actually blocked areas of the internet that continued to host these reprehensible materials. This was one of the most aggressive actions taken by ISPs worldwide, and it raises some thought-provoking questions regarding who should be accountable for data that’s shared online: the platform, or the internet service providers, or solely the individuals sharing it? Is there such a thing as regulated free speech? 

And while we’re on the topic: Is it really necessary for every human being to have the capability to instantly broadcast anything with zero vetting? Facebook should restrict this live-streaming capability to verified news media and individuals, so this kind of thing can’t happen in the future. 

An encouraging reaction

It was heartening to see the numbers of people across the world who refused to watch or share these violent images, in a sort of moral protest. If we really want change, though, we should be pushing our legislators to create laws that crack down on big firms that handle and distribute data.