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Forde Campbell's Kathy Mathews on social media regulation and the commoditisation of data

  • Will new social media regulations really ensure that “people stay in charge of the machines”?

    On the face of it, the recent report published by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee contains a welcome recognition of the prevailing harm caused by the proliferation of social media. One such example is the acknowledgment by one contributor of the “negative impacts of technology that do not show up on the balance sheets of companies, but on the balance sheet of society”.

    Strong words indeed. No doubt such comments, along with the recommendations in the report, are fully justified in light of the disconcerting disclosures relating to the extent to which political outcomes have been influenced by targeted ads and the behind-the-scenes collection, manipulation and cynical deployment of user data.    

    Before even considering the havoc that has been wreaked by such interference at a political level, the discussion on the widespread commoditisation of data, now more commonly known as ‘surveillance capitalism’ thanks to Shoshana Zuboff’s book of the same title, is nothing short of shocking. The report demonstrates Facebook’s apparent lack of social conscience in terms of its treatment of user data and states that, “documents that [the Committee] received highlighted the fact that Facebook wanted to maximise revenues at all cost, and in doing so favoured those app developers who were willing to pay a lot of money for adverts and targeted those apps that were in direct or potential future competition—and in certain notable instances acquired them.” This revelation is significantly at odds with Facebook’s repeated assurances to its users that it takes their privacy seriously -- clearly not as seriously as it takes getting paid very handsomely for those same users’ personal data.

    To what extent are we responsible for the loss of our privacy to these organisations? Could we have chosen not to engage with the tempting forum for auto-aggrandisement that Facebook provided us with? Of course we could have, but the prospect of being expressly ‘liked’ simultaneously and by a large number of people proved just too dopamine-generating to turn down. So we went to town with uploads of pictures and information documenting the minutia of our lives and most other aspects besides. Every single word and image of which was merrily hoovered up and rendered useful through a complex network of algorithms before being pumped back out at us in the form of unrecognizable confirmation bias, the impacts of which have latterly been felt on a national and global level, one reported example of which being the outcome of the UK Brexit referendum.

    It is encouraging to see the mainstream media taking such a keen interest in the disingenuous deeds of social media operators in the wake of this report. The print coverage has certainly not spared the purveyors of social media sites which, unlike their traditional ancestors, are still unlikely to be classified as ‘publishers’ so far as liability is concerned. 

    Perhaps one of the most damning indictments within the report, which further serves to illustrate the dire need for intervention, relates to Facebook’s ‘Research app’ which involved secret payments to younger users who, in return for a small monthly fee, allow the company to essentially track their every move online via their smartphones. Like a digital embodiment of the Pleasure Island amusement park in Pinocchio, intended by design to lure unsuspecting children far away from the age of innocence (which was sorely missed once the deception was uncovered), some teen-targeting platforms have demonstrably employed gaming technology to maximise users’ time online.

    The Research app was reportedly blocked by Apple in January this year in order to protect their customers’ data when it discovered that it was in breach of its terms. If tech-giants like Apple have to play catch-up when it comes to app-intrusiveness then what chance does the lay user have when it comes to maintaining some kind of control over their information? Hopefully the odds will improve somewhat in light of the most recent recommendations, although with many of Leveson’s key recommendations still gathering dust perhaps there is still work to be done.

    One wonders what a possible antidote to this wide-scale privacy bypass might look like (DCMS recommendations calling for regulation hopefully) and whether there is anything that can meaningfully be done to reduce the chances of becoming personally and politically conditioned whilst sojourning down social media’s sinister alleyways of share-boosting pleasure-hits. 

    Forde Campbell LLC is a niche commercial law practice, with a specialism in media and IP law, that offers its clients unparalleled expertise in the areas of reputation management, privacy, data and brand protection. Kathy Mathews is a privacy and defamation law expert specialising in media litigation including online takedowns and pre and post publication advice, specifically tailored to each of her clients’ individual requirements.

    About the author

    Tina Lauro Pollock is the editing eye at Sync NI and looks after its clients. She has a particular interest in the gaming sector, big data, women in tech and business, and start-ups. To connect with Tina, feel free to seek her out on Twitter, find her on LinkedIn, or schedule a chat by sending her an email.

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