Social media, freedom, and the future

Our addiction to social media and online services means multinationals are capable of targeting us to sell their products and services. Áilín Quinlan asks if we need stronger checks on their power.

Social media, freedom, and the future

WE’RE addicted to social media — from gmail to Google; from Facebook to Snapchat.

And of course the benefits of social media are both diverse — providing us with easy-to-access connectivity, entertainment and shopping — and without charge.

However, because the business model of digital companies subsidises these free services by using personal data for targeted advertising, there is a price to pay — the only thing is, we don’t really know what that price is, warns Orla Lynskey, Assistant Professor of Law at the London School of Economics.

“At the moment there’s growing concern about the power of digital companies,” she says, adding that the economic aspect of the issue in terms of monopoly is a worry:

“An example would be the impact these big digital companies can have on the market and on competition. If you have a strong market position, it’s illegal to take advantage of this position of power — Google for example was fined $2.4 billion for allegedly abusing its very powerful market position in a way that excluded other competitors.” Other issues, such as the media status of big digital companies is something which also needs to be strongly considered, she believes:

“Increasingly we are getting more and more of our news through such platforms — for example at the moment research shows up to 50% of people in Europe would use Facebook as a source of news.” Large social media platforms, she says, hold a huge amount of very diverse data about their users. This comes through information directly provided by users but there is also data that is inferred about users through monitoring online activity:

“Social media platforms are able to determine your social and financial status, education status and so on, so theoretically, knowing so much information about an individual can give social media platforms what I call ‘data power’. “Information is power! Social media platforms can also infer a lot from the information a user may provide - and the user may not be aware of this,” she warns.

We don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes, she says, pointing to the recent announcement by Facebook that it received $100,000 from Russian sources for advertising of a political nature during last year’s US election campaign.

The data protection regulator in the UK, she observes, is currently investigating the role played by a data analytics firm in the lead-up to the Brexit referendum.

“There is a lot of invisible power being wielded, so the question I ask is, do we have the legal tools available to deal with this?

“We have never seen this kind of power before — it touches on all aspects of our lives from how we vote and shop to how we interact with other people.

“It’s very difficult to identify a single answer to this going into the future,” acknowledges Professor Lynskey who gave a public lecture on the topic at the ADAPT Centre in Trinity College recently.

However some things can be done:

“First of all we need to enforce data protection frameworks more assertively across the European Union.

“ At the moment, you have quite strict rules on paper but they have not, in my opinion, been sufficiently enforced in practical terms,” she says adding, however, that the current Data Protection Commissioner in Ireland is very pro-active:

“We will have new rules on data protection implemented across Europe in the first half of 2018,” she adds.

“Ideally, the general public would get more control over how their personal information is used. The information you provide is used by social media platforms to create a profile of you. That profile is used for advertising purposes.” “A big social media platform could gather a huge amount of information about you from various parts of your life - health, finances, shopping habits, or where you hang out.” she says.

“One potential concern is that this could be used to try to gauge how much you might be willing to pay for a certain product — so two different users could see the same product advertised on a social media platform at quite different prices.” There’s no evidence that this is happening across the board, she emphasises, but it could potentially happen:

“The resources to do it are there,” she says, adding that such profiles could also categorise people in such a way that it potentially affected future job opportunities, or could be provided to the forces of law if required:

“For example, if a person is being categorised in a detailed way, their vulnerability could be taken advantage of - someone who is short on cash might potentially be offered ‘payday loans’ - high interest loans with very quick access to finance.” There’s a trade-off here, Lynskey observes, between useful free services which, she points out, are sometimes “quite innovative and very practical” and data collected on the user:

“The big question here is how much data we are giving over to these companies for these benefits; the convenience, connectivity or entertainment, all of which are part of our social media services. There are definite benefits and the services are free, but the business model subsidises your free services by using personal data for targeted advertising.

Lynskey feels there should be a targeted checks-and-balance system for the bigger firms rather than the one-of-all regulations which currently cover all businesses:

“Do we need additional checks on big companies, which process more information and from a greater variety of sources?” she asks. Such a targeted system would be created at EU rather than national level, she believes, and it ought to address the question of whether data should be shared between companies as a result of mergers: “The Irish Data Commissioner is in discussions with Facebook about whether or not it can combine data it collected on Facebook with data it collects through the WhatsApp facility following the merger of these companies in 2014.”

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