Friday, 23 March 2018

After the Face Plant

The scandal over Cambridge Analytica's plunder of Facebook user-data has highlighted a much deeper problem: the business model for Facebook is tailor-made for propaganda.

Two issues arose from the scandal:

  • Cambridge Analytica scooped information from all the friends of the people who did their personality test; and
  • Facebook didn't tell those people their data would be used this way.

The first is not much of an issue. Facebook could have sold that extra information but chose instead to turn a blind eye, allowing CA free rein, presumably in the expectation that it (FB) would later be able to charge CA and it's future rivals once this new propaganda business had been proven.

As for the second issue: not telling people? Well that's a breach of trust and FB will obviously have to do better while it tries to regain that trust.

BUT everyone knows that FB sells access to its users, don't they? And is advertising really all that different from political propaganda? If you're happy to allow (say) drink advertisers to test messaging on small target groups and then run the best messages more widely, what difference does it make if the advertiser is seeking votes instead of drink purchases? You're already well into manipulation.

Still, somehow it feels way worse when the ultimate prize is control of a country rather than just more market share for some product or service. Why is this? One reason is that politics often turns out to be a winner-takes-all game, even under MMP, whereas even if you don't like the drinks market leader you can just buy one of the smaller brands. Another is that we have a system of competition and fair-trading laws, and ultimately economic regulation, for commercial merchants but no corresponding constraints on political parties.

So even if we're OK with FB selling our secrets to commercial advertisers, we might reasonably object to those same secrets being sold to political propagandists. But what should we do about it? Here are a few ideas I've come across in recent days.

  1. Prohibit FB from selling access to user info. This is an extreme position that would eliminate the company's existing revenue streams. Usage could no-longer be "free" - you'd have to pay in more explicit ways such as cash.
  2. Break it up because the problem is that it's too big. Also extreme, this one is based on analogies from different industries in the past (Standard Oil and the Bell System).  I think this would just shift the same problem to the baby-FBs as previously occurred with the baby-Bells.
  3. Regulated open-access. An interesting idea that treats FB as a natural monopoly and forces it to offer access to a new layer of competing client interfaces that would have their own rules, norms etc.
  4. Conduct regulation. Forget all that competition nonsense (#3), just formulate some rules about the kind of cash-paying customers FB is allowed, require it to report regularly on its customers & their spending, and stomp on violations.

My feeling is that this scandal has exposed threats to our democracies and that we should the thinking of ways to counter those threats now. There are probably other options but at this point I lean towards #3 or #4. Better quality information for taxation purposes would be an added benefit of these options.

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