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15th February 2019

Facebook vs The Law

Razan Samkari argues that online giants like Facebook are not currently compatible with modern, transparent democracies and need to be restrained by laws and policy to protect their users.
Facebook vs The Law
Photo: Esther Vargaras @ Flickr

Facebook – the world’s largest social networking company, with over 2.3 billion members, was accused of  breaching of data privacy throughout 2018.

Cambridge Analytica, a data-driven political consultancy firm, used the personal information of millions of Facebook users without permission to directly influence political campaigns, powering Trump and Leave.EU to success.

The story damaged Facebook’s reputation – #deletefacebook gained traction for a time – but user numbers and profit continue to rise. Profits topped £17bn last year, up nearly 40%.

The share price did sink by 30%, and it suffered the largest one-day loss in value ever in July – £100bn – but this reflected investor unease over slower growth, rather than privacy concerns.

The scandals have not put off advertisers, but they have increased calls for regulatory action, which could have a debilitating effect on Facebook’s ability to generate profits.

Founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was summoned to Congress, but has refused to speak to MPs in this country. Many other countries have threatened a clampdown.

So far the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office – a public body which protects personal data – has fined Facebook £500,000 over Cambridge Analytica.

That was the maximum possible under old data protection laws. New EU-wide rules are much tougher, allowing a fine of 4% of global turnover. Facebook’s revenues were about £46bn last year so that could mean a fine of about £190m.

This scandal proves that centralisation of the internet on a few highly influential websites grants companies almost unconstrained power, beyond the control of many countries’ legal systems. This manipulation of everyday people may create profits for Facebook, but it harms wider society.

This is becoming a central question of jurisprudence in the modern day: the idea that social media and the internet wield such power between them that they cease to be answerable to legal or political systems.

Many questions arise in consideration of Facebook’s seemingly unrestrained power. Facebook now operates with an annual revenue about the same size as the entire economy of countries like Lithuania, Croatia or Ghana.

It is a terrifyingly enormous financial entity, and it looms on the social horizon. Does its power amount to that of a nation-state in terms of the global order? If so, what is its role? D

Does it have a responsibility to users in the way that government do to their citizens? And should it be accountable to them in the way a democratic government should be? In order for Facebook to exist in a healthily functioning democracy, these questions regarding its regulation and supervision must be addressed.

Mark Zuckerberg’s US Congress appearance demonstrated that lawmakers clearly do not comprehend how these companies operate, particularly in regards to issues of privacy. Technology is developing increasingly rapidly and the law must work with IT specialists to ensure that our legal frameworks move with the times to match these advancements.

This could be either by establishing a legal panel specialised in IT developments and regulations, such as computer engineering advancements, or an impartial governmental supervisory body of data security protection and breaches to bridge the gap.

Massive social networks like Facebook must be regulated by the legal system; they have proven they cannot be trusted with handling personal data. Currently, these private companies are taking advantage of out of date laws to generate profits by stealing people’s data and undemocratic political intervention. Lawmakers must stop being so oblivious and catch up with modern technology.

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