Power, Responsibility, and Corruption: Facebook at a Crossroads
There has been some questioning, since the news broke, about whether this incident involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica technically qualifies as a data breach. Whether it does or not, European legislators will be among the first to take a serious look into the matter.
You’ve probably heard the story by now: how data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica illegally accessed and misused the data of 50 million Facebook users (often without their knowledge or consent), particularly for use in the 2016 US presidential campaign, and the pro-Brexit campaign in the UK. The firm leveraged the illicitly gained data to target swing voters, according to the original New York Times and London Observer reports. As a result, both the European Parliament and the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office are conducting their own investigations.
Beyond that, however, I don’t want to pore through the same details you can find on just about every other outlet. I believe what we’re witnessing here is a potentially transformative event. Long-held but oft-muted questions about the role and responsibility of tech companies are gaining traction, particularly regarding political power and oversight. As video game publishers such as Electronic Arts (EA) recently (hopefully) learned, the more you push the envelope, the broader the swath of people your actions anger, the more severe the backlash. And that was just for something like sleazy in-game purchases. The problems the tech industry will face when their overreach affects national elections will be exponentially greater.
Great power coming with great responsibility isn’t just a Spiderman quote, it’s a warning. Tech companies have substantial power to help steer the course of a society in one direction or another, as we have so clearly seen. If they fail to show the commensurate level of responsibility, the goodwill they now enjoy will evaporate. As it might be starting to. With the video game industry, which historically prefers self-regulation, the backlash to EA and similar publishers has brought governmental and legal attention from Hawaii to Sweden. What future regulations might hit the tech industry for complicity in massive political corruption can only be guessed.
Already, to no one’s surprise, Facebook shares have taken a massive hit, as has its reputation in the media. The social media giant’s lackluster response hasn’t helped it: not only did they suspend the whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, from their platform, but also claim that all the information was willfully provided. As things stand now, that would seem to be a lie. As would Cambridge Analytica’s insistence that it followed Facebook’s Terms of Service, despite the sale of user information to third parties being explicitly against the ToS.
I wonder what further information the investigations will uncover.