For a demonstration of where power lies in Britain, consider this: Cambridge Analytica, the firm accused of improperly obtaining the data of 50 million Facebook users, agreed to let the social network “audit” its practices when the story broke. However, it demanded a warrant for the Information Commissioner’s Office – the body responsible for protecting British citizens’ data – to do the same.
In the face of multinational behemoths such as Facebook, which made $40bn in revenue in 2017, individual governments have found themselves to be almost powerless. Facebook has more than two billion users, and is free to access. As the saying goes, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” For all its spiel about “connecting the world”, Facebook is an advertising business, and it has prospered by offering to target users by age, location, interests and other variables.
The huge volumes of information that can be harvested from “likes” and browsing habits – and which Facebook supplements by purchasing consumer data such as credit reports – have disturbing implications. In November, Facebook agreed to turn off “multicultural affinity segments”: in other words, the ability to target by presumed race and ethnicity. It only did this after journalists at ProPublica revealed they had bought housing adverts “but asked that they not be shown to certain categories of users, such as African Americans, mothers of high school kids, people interested in wheelchair ramps, Jews, expats from Argentina and Spanish speakers”.
It is not hard to see how similar targeting could have an effect on political discourse. When inflammatory adverts appear on billboards, in newspapers and on mainstream television channels, there is at least a chance for the public to see them, and to complain. Online, such material may pass unnoticed outside the target group. Facebook has shown it cannot be trusted, and should ban political advertising.
The actions of Cambridge Analytica, as revealed by the Observer and Channel 4 News, are equally troublesome in their implications for democracy. The company contracted an academic to produce a personality test, and then harvested the information not only of those who took the test, but their friends. This was not a violation of Facebook’s terms of service at the time (similar methods were employed by the Obama campaign in 2012) and some of the more lurid reporting is overblown. A “data war machine” built by Cambridge Analytica is not responsible for the election of Donald Trump, or the Brexit vote. In fact, when filmed by Channel 4’s undercover reporters, the firm’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, claimed its methods for influencing elections were often old-fashioned and low-tech: honeytraps and framing opponents for corruption. If the company folds, it should blame its own hyped-up sales pitch.
The true scandal of the story is that our data is extraordinarily valuable – it has been called “the new oil” – and yet the trade in data is often invisible and barely regulated. The Information Commissioner’s Office is poorly funded and overly cautious in pursuing offenders. It should be given more money, and made to answer directly to parliament – as the National Audit Office does – rather than Whitehall.
It is dismaying to note that one of the few organisations with the clout and political will to stand up to the big tech companies is the European Union, which is bringing in tough new data regulations (and large fines to enforce them) in May. Britain will follow these regulations post-Brexit, but it will be poorly placed to contribute to any new, pan-European actions against the misuse of personal data. Our information is precious, and politicians are failing to protect it.
This article appears in the 21 Mar 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Easter special