The key question to ask when a shocking tragedy comes to light is this: does it signify a scandal or a crisis? Scandals happen all the time in societies. They generate a lot of heat, outrage and public angst. But, eventually, the media caravan moves on and nothing much changes.
When in 2011, for example, the Guardian printed shocking revelations of tabloid phone-hacking and, particularly, the news that reporters had hacked the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, many observers concluded that this indicated a crisis for the British newspaper industry. Initially, the signs were promising: solemn statement by the prime minister, ubiquitous shock-horror-outrage, closure of a big newspaper, a judicial inquiry – all the trappings of a democracy embarking on radical reform. But in the end, nothing much changed. British tabloids are as intrusive and crass as ever. And the industry remains “self-regulated”. It was just another scandal, after all.
Spool forward to the tragic case of Molly Russell , the 14-year-old who killed herself after exploring her depression on Instagram. When her family looked into her account, they found sombre material about depression and suicide. Her father said that he believed the Facebook-owned platform had “ helped kill my daughter ”. This prompted Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to warn social media platforms to “purge” material relating to self-harm and suicide or face legislation that would compel them to do so. In response, Instagram and Pinterest (another social media outfit) issued the standard bromides about how they were embarking on a “full review” of their policies etc.
So is Molly’s case a crisis or a scandal? You know the answer. Nothing much will change because the business models of the platforms preclude it. Their commercial imperatives are remorselessly to increase both the number of their users and the intensity of those users’ “engagement” with the platforms. That’s what keeps the monetisable data flowing. Tragedies such as Molly Russell’s suicide are regrettable (and of course have PR downsides) but are really just the cost of running such a profitable business.
Asking these companies to change their business model, therefore, is akin to “asking a giraffe to shorten its neck”, as Shoshana Zuboff puts it in her fiery new book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Social media platforms will only change their behaviour when compelled to do so by legislation. Appealing to their better natures is like asking tobacco firms to be compassionate about smokers.
Tobacco companies may ruin lives, but they do not undermine democratic processes. Social media companies do. So if democracies want to survive to 2030 they will need to find ways of bringing the tech giants under control. It has taken a long time – 14 years by my reckoning – for governments to wake up to this, but the penny is finally dropping.
For much of that period, our regulators were asleep at the wheel. And as they slumbered, some of the tech giants performed an audacious land-grab, appropriating our personal data, which they were allowed to treat as a free resource. In return, they provided shiny baubles, in the form of “free” services that delighted us, while they processed our data for the advertisers who were their actual customers. And they have been doing this unregulated for years, rather as the banks did in the years before they brought the global economy to its knees in 2008.
If the US election in 2016 taught us anything, it was that the business models of companies such as Google and Facebook allowed their platforms to be exploited by domestic and foreign political actors to influence elections. Automated systems designed to enable advertisers to target users with customised commercial messages turned out also to be perfect tools for a certain kind of disruptive politics. They enabled Russian agents and domestic extremists to beam precisely calibrated messages at voters with the aim of suppressing turnout in critical constituencies and of sowing doubt, mistrust, paranoia and confusion in communities already polarised by inequality and social exclusion.
Just as the collapse of Lehman Brothers made the world aware of the depth of the banking catastrophe, Trump’s election alerted regulators and legislatures everywhere to the dangers of letting & co run riot. Which is why everywhere one looks there are now rustlings in the regulatory undergrowth.
At the moment, these focus mostly on abuse of data and taking users’ compliance for granted. Last week, for example, Germany’s competition authority issued a far-reaching injunction to Facebook , ruling that the company “will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook user accounts… In future, consumers can prevent Facebook from unrestrictedly collecting and using their data.”
Last month, CNIL, the French data protection watchdog, fined Google a record €50m (£44m) for failing to provide users with transparent and understandable information on its data use policies.
Since the tech giants are all American, they tend to attribute their difficulties with European regulators to what one tech executive described (in a private conversation) as “losers’ envy”. But they now have trouble brewing at home, too. In 2012, Facebook signed a consent decree with the Federal Trade Commission promising that it would give users clear and prominent notice and obtain their express consent before their information was shared beyond the privacy settings they had established. It now transpires that the FTC is likely to find that the company has violated that decree, which carries a fine of $40,000 per user per day.
Facebook acquired the VPN Onavo, and claims that “millions of users around the world use Onavo’s mobile apps to take the worry out of using smartphones and tablets.” A Facebook user might naively assume that this demonstrates that the company is not only concerned about privacy, but is generously seeking to protect it by providing a free VPN service.
As the man said, a billion here and a billion there – it eventually adds up to a ton of money. It might not happen, but wouldn’t it be fun if Mark Zuckerberg, whose motto used to be “move fast and break things”, eventually wound up broke?
• John Naughton is an Observer columnist
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