This week, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg will make a long-awaited appearance on Capitol Hill. With Facebook under new and increased scrutiny in the United States (US) and United Kingdom (UK) following the Cambridge Analytica data breach, Facebook’s Chairman and Chief Executive Officer is set to be grilled by representatives of both the Senate and the House. The fallout from the Cambridge Analytica affair has spooked users as well as investors, igniting a #deleteFacebook campaign and sending the company’s stock price off a cliff. Questions from US lawmakers are likely to focus on fundamental issues surrounding how Facebook collects, protects, and commercializes user data on its platform. These matters strike at the heart of Facebook’s advertising revenue model, meaning that Zuckerberg’s congressional moment may potentially become an existential threat to his company’s operations as well as the data-driven operations of his peers in the technology industry.
Companies like Facebook, Google (Alphabet), Amazon, and Uber have long presented themselves as creative pioneers who collect and analyze massive amounts of user data to improve the human condition. Savvy marketing and personal acts of altruism have combined to create a calculated image of these companies as rebels and outsiders, doing no evil, working to leverage data analytics to disrupt tired and unimaginative incumbents in order to connect and empower the world. The tech community’s first major crisis occurred via the unbridled economic hype and enthusiasm presaging the Dot Com Bust, and current big tech companies may be similarly humbled by ongoing pricks to the veneer covering the structural deficiencies of their data-driven business practices. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron has publicaly mused about the need to “dismantle […] these big giants” as a competition issue, and, here in Canada, there is a growing call for a national data strategy that prioritizes domestic interests.
Facebook’s current time in the spotlight is just the most recent instance of big tech’s proclivity for moving fast and, unintentionally, breaking the wrong things. Zuckerberg may have inadvertently said as much himself in the immediate wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations. In an interview with the New York Times, he admitted, “If you had asked me, when I got started with Facebook, if one of the central things I’d need to work on now is preventing governments from interfering in each other’s elections, there’s no way I thought that’s what I’d be doing, if we talked in 2004 in my dorm room.”
Such a revelation may be an instructive lesson for a fresh-faced undergraduate student thinking through the implications of disruptive technologies for the first time. However, they are worrisome when the head of a global technology behemoth who has run the company for over a decade and has not so coyly flirted with seeking public office utters them.
But they’re not terribly shocking. Since the early 1990s, lawmakers and technologists have advanced the idea of increased connectivity through information and communication technologies (ICTs) as, what then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would call them some 20 years later, the “on-ramp to modernity”. In his interview with the New York Times, Zuckerberg echoed a similar sentiment to defend Facebook’s revenue model: “The thing about the ad model that is really important that aligns with our mission is that — our mission is to build a community for everyone in the world and to bring the world closer together. And a really important part of that is making a service that people can afford. […]Therefore, having it be free and have a business model that is ad-supported ends up being really important and aligned.” However, a leaked internal memo from Facebook Vice President Andrew Bosworth that seemingly downplays “the ugly” side of Facebook’s activities effectively punctures this grandiose narrative. Today’s big tech firms have come of light-touch regulation from lawmakers and responded by giving normative and ethical concerns a back seat to connectivity and disruption.
More recently, though, legislators on both sides of the Atlantic have begun to rethink this arrangement. In the European Union (EU), next month’s enforcement date for the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will introduce heavy fines for companies that do not comply with harmonized data privacy regulations. And at a 2017 US Senate subcommittee hearing into Russian online disinformation activities during the 2016 Presidential election campaign, Senator Dianne Feinstein warned representatives from Facebook, Twitter, and Google that “You created these platforms, and now they’re being misused. And you have to be the ones who do something about it—or we will.” Depending on the outcome of Zuckerberg’s appearances this week, the US Congress may begin to make good on Sen. Feinstein’s threat.
Regulating or, in the words of Macron, dismantling big tech will be no easy task. These companies have amassed large stores of data about our innermost feelings and have developed technologies that generate personal dependency. These companies have also entranced governments with the promise of jobs and economic prosperity they can provide. It is imperative that any attempts to harness big tech for the public good are not done in a knee-jerk or vindictive fashion. The challenges these companies and new emerging technologies pose require long-term and strategic thinking around the social, economic, ethical, and democratic impacts of our increasingly data-driven society.
Joseph F. Turcotte is a Senior Editor with the IPilogue and the IP Osgoode Innovation Clinic Coordinator. He holds a PhD from the Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture (Politics & Policy) at York University and Ryerson University (Toronto, Canada).