Is there any way to rein in the excesses of the all-powerful social media giants, like Facebook?
In the past year alone, several attempts to do so have been made separately by authorities in the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Italy, India, Brazil and, only this week, Germany.
The most notable attempt was made by the US Congress in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in March of last year, when it was revealed that the British political consulting firm had harvested the personal data of millions of people’s Facebook profiles without their consent and used it for political purposes.
The fallout from that was a watershed moment in the public understanding of personal data and precipitated a massive fall in Facebook’s stock price and calls for tighter regulation of all tech companies’ use of data.
Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, was forced to prostrate himself before Congress and promise that nothing like that would happen again.
The scandal also gave an extra push to the introduction of the EU’s new all-encompassing data regulation, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Yet, less than a year after Cambridge Analytica, German investigators have found that Facebook is not only continuing to mine data from its own users, but has been combining it with data from other social media sources, like Whatsapp.
Germany’s competition authority has told Facebook it can no longer pool collected data without the permission of its users. The Federal Cartel Office (FCO), in Germany, said it would be taking a harder line on what it dubbed Facebook’s “practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data.”
The phrase “Big Brother is watching you” comes to mind. It goes back to 1948, when author George Orwell coined it in the opening of the first chapter of his novel 1984. In the novel, Big Brother is the supreme authority of a totalitarian state called Oceania, where “the Party” has almost total control over the people.
Far-sighted and all though he was, Orwell could hardly have envisaged a time when Big Business would not only be watching us, but also stalking us and using a massive database to guide our thoughts and actions.
Social media was not even a pipe-dream when he wrote 1984, but in the last decade alone it has become as ubiquitous as the personal computer.
It took Christianity 2,000 years to reach 2.2bn adherents. It took Islam 1,400 years to number 1.5bn among the faithful. Facebook has grown from around 1m users to more than 1bn registered users in less than 15 years and Zuckerberg has made connecting 5bn a personal goal.
Given such a messianic mission and the social, cultural, and financial clout of Facebook, only concerted action by a coalition of willing states will be enough to ensure that the social media juggernaut doesn’t become a global entity beyond anyone’s reach or control.