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The politics of disclosure

Sunday, April 15, 2018

As Zuckerberg underwent his ten-hour long interrogation this week on Capitol Hill, we observed him bob, weave, and genuflect through the complicated maze of citizens’ rights to privacy and control of their data, the limits to those rights, and exactly how much we give away in service of the connectivity and opportunity that Facebook and other such social platforms provide. We saw the congressmen and women, with a couple exceptions, struggle to corner the icon or catch him in dishonesty because of a combination of their inability to phrase technically-savvy questions and his razor-sharp intelligence.

Thus is the paradox. Almost all of us use technology but only a small percentage really understands how technology works. Those who understand how it works have an extraordinary advantage over those who do not. Yet Zuckerberg could not help but look like an unfaithful husband desperately seeking to save a marriage after being caught in an affair.

You see, the defining feature of our time is our hyper-connectivity and its precious progeny, big data. Each of us who use Facebook are in a relationship with Mark which many believed was monogamous—in fact it’s a threesome.

Every time we share, post, message, send a WhatsApp, or use a credit card online, we are acting as “Data Producers (DPs)”. Seduced by the promise of fun, the latest goods, connectivity, or some mind-numbing activity, DPs create and exchange their data freely with the “Data Aggregators (DAs)” (mostly app and platform developers). Most DPs are unaware that there is an outside person in their relationship with the DAs —the “Data Consumers (DCs)”—companies, universities, research facilities, think tanks, and political groups which then analyse large data sets to uncover patterns, trends, and associations, relating to human behaviour and interactions. Some DCs like research organisations collate and analyse data to increase knowledge, spur innovation and development and others do it in order to exert influence over human behaviour.

Facebook is the largest DA of our time and nothing prepared us or them for the sledgehammer effect of the Cambridge Analytica disclosures on how Facebook uses data. The CA scandal also exposed the previously camouflaged relationship between DAs and DCs. With access to aggregate data, both DAs and DCs now know more about DPs than they know about themselves.

This raises the unavoidable political question of whose data is it? Who has the right to that data and the power to control and/or to use that data? Should it be us, or Mark, or, (please not) the DCs?

Like jilted partners, DPs are deleting their accounts left, right and centre with retorts like “they are selling my data and I’m not making anything from it!”, “targeting me with fake news!” and “I won’t be a product!”—making a stand for DP rights on the political question of who should have power over data. DAs and DCs, unsurprisingly, are scrambling to justify billion-dollar business models built on monetizing user data to maximize profit over privacy.

But is this a zero-sum game? Yes, Facebook is not the idealized platform for connectivity and opportunity. However, isn’t it something much greater?

These people breaking up with Facebook are choosing to leave an unprecedented, and until recently, unimaginable, collective of 2.13 billion people of which over 730,000 are from T&T. If this collective were a country it would be the largest country on the planet by almost one billion people and growing at the rate of 14 per cent per year. A collective where over 2.4 million pieces of information are shared every minute and which has over 100 million people interacting in meaningful online communities.

Undoubtedly, innovation has outpaced regulation. Under interrogation, Zuckerberg conceded that the European GDPR was a progressive step in data protection and that Facebook was willing voluntarily to comply with this regulation worldwide. In a data-chess game, that Zuckerberg move would have been a check. If Zuckerberg does follow through, this would mean that for countries like US and T&T, where politicians are dragging their feet on comprehensive Data Protection legislation, corporations would be providing more protection of fundamental human rights to privacy than governments. Ponder that.

Margaret Rose-Goddard is a lawyer and public procurement specialist. She is currently a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Policy Research, University of Bath, UK and is the founder of the Procurement Innovation & Leadership Lab and U-Solve School of Empathic Leadership & Entrepreneurship. [email protected]


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