Facebook is a global ecosystem, linking everyone and everything instantaneously, directly, without checks, without mediators, without end. In just a few years, this virtual space became the home of 2 billion people, who express their hopes, fears, wishes and accomplishments in it, who praise and vilify each other, who communicate nonstop. It is where many store their most valuable memories, photographs and texts. It is a free and boundless market of ideas and a platform for prejudice, where everything flows in every direction – from adolescent dreams to the darkest crimes and the most dangerous propaganda.
Now it emerges that this walled Garden of Eden did not exist to serve those who had moved into it of their own free will; on the contrary, it was we – the huge number of consumers and voters – who had become the product, the property of the company. Facebook’s power is based not only on what third companies sell through advertising on the network, but also on the fact that Facebook sells the power and penetration granted by the great number of members – it sells the vast number of people involved in the network and, it would appear, the data pertaining to them. This model is obviously hugely profitable, with Facebook doing 40.6 billion dollars in annual business.
Now the company is called on to explain why it allowed (or, at best, did not prevent) the penetration of third parties into the personal data of 87 million people – a breach which could have led to the manipulation of their opinions and, consequently, their votes. There are strong indications that such undue influence may have affected votes in favor of Brexit and Donald Trump.
A grave danger of the Internet, as we all know, is that few of us bother to read all the (excessive) fine print before we agree to accept a company’s services, or we simply think that our need for the service exceeds the costs that we may have to pay. In Facebook’s case, it seems that even this lax relationship has been pushed beyond breaking point. It has emerged that the operators of an application (AIQ in one case) could ask users to agree to their harvesting their data, without informing them that this would lead to the collection of all the data of people connected to them. In other words, if I agreed to allow the company to take hold of my data in exchange for using its app, I also opened the door to the gathering of all the data of people with whom I had been in contact, without their knowing about this.
With the data, another company – Cambridge Analytica – could create profiles of people and, according to the company’s claims, influence voters with adverts, texts and comments. In its promotional videos, Cambridge Analytica has claimed to have “up to 5,000 data points on 220 million Americans,” adding, “We go beyond big data, we add an extra layer of personality data to get down to an individual level.” This, the company claimed, allowed it to shape groups and to predict the behavior of like-minded people. It remains to be seen whether the data was harvested by suspect measures and what role this played at the ballot box. (Cambridge Analytica says that it has done nothing illegal; it has set up a website, CambridgeFacts.com, to answer questions pertaining to the issue.)
All this appears unrelated to the alleged Russian intervention in the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election. Last year it emerged that close to 150 million Americans may have been exposed to material on Facebook or Instagram that was created in Russia; furthermore, it is believed that Russians posted some 131,000 messages on Twitter and more than 1,000 videos on YouTube before the US elections. In addition, there are instances where private companies intruded on citizens’ privacy. One hair-raising instance is that of Vizio, a maker of smart television sets. The US regulatory authorities fined the company 2.2 million dollars after finding that the company’s TV sets were secretly tracking viewers to see whether they were watching programs or doing something else.
Investigative reporting (mainly by the Observer and Guardian in Britain and The New York Times) and the probes being conducted in the British Parliament and US Congress have underlined the dangers posed by the uncontrolled use of information. What is also apparent, though, is the difficulty of imposing regulations without restricting freedom on the Internet. It is not clear what comes next in the United States, where Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, spent two days testifying before Congress last week. Among the possibilities are stricter controls over the use of people’s data as well as greater attention to the contents of messages and advertisements. The European Union is already moving toward obliging social networks to provide greater protection to people, giving users more choices in the way they control companies’ use of their personal data.
What we need to remember about Facebook and many other companies is that their strength is the number of users-members-customers that they have. It is up to each one of us to know how exposed he or she is and to act accordingly. We can demand greater guarantees for our privacy and security; if this is not enough, we may even abandon a specific platform, finding other ways to interact with our friends and the world. This will not be easy. Too many people have invested too much over the past few years in creating their digital life on Facebook. But what we and Facebook need to keep in mind is that there may come a time when there will be just too many serpents in Eden, making it so dangerous that this will undermine temptation itself, driving us out of our virtual world.