Sat, Apr 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Facebook controversy and the future of online privacy

By Jeffrey Sachs

Facebook cofounder Chris Hughes on Monday said that public scrutiny of Facebook is “very much overdue,” adding that “it’s shocking to me that they didn’t have to answer more of these questions earlier on.”

Leaders in the information technology sector, especially in Europe, have been warning of the abuses by Facebook and other portals for years. Their insights and practical recommendations are especially urgent now.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the US Senate on Tuesday did little to shore up public confidence in a company that traffics in its users’ personal data.

The most telling moment of testimony came when US Senator Richard Durbin asked whether Zuckerberg would be comfortable sharing the name of his hotel and the people he had messaged that week, exactly the kind of data tracked and used by Facebook.

Zuckerberg replied that he would not be comfortable providing the information.

“I think that may be what this is all about,” Durbin said. “Your right to privacy.”

Critics of Facebook have been making this point for years. Stefano Quintarelli, one of Europe’s top information technology experts and a leading advocate for online privacy — and, until recently, a member of the Italian parliament — has been a persistent and prophetic critic of Facebook’s abuse of its market position and misuse of online personal data.

Quintarelli has long championed a powerful idea — that each of us should retain control of our online profile, which should be readily transferable across portals. If we decide we do not like Facebook, we should be able to shift to a competitor without losing the links to contacts who remain on Facebook.

For Quintarelli, Cambridge Analytica’s abuse of data acquired from Facebook was an inevitable consequence of the social media firm’s irresponsible business model. Facebook has now acknowledged that Cambridge Analytica is not alone in having exploited personal profiles acquired from the company.

Quintarelli said that the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which takes effect on May 25, following six years of preparation and debate, “can serve as guidance in some aspects.”

The GDPR stipulates that “non-compliant organizations can face heavy fines, up to 4 percent of their revenues. Had the GDPR already been in place, Facebook, in order to avoid such fines, would have had to notify the authorities of the data leak as soon as the company became aware of it, well in advance of the last US election,” he said.

“Effective competition is a powerful tool to increase and defend biodiversity in the digital space,” he said, adding that the GDPR could help, because it “introduces the concept of profile portability, whereby a user can move her profile from one service provider to another, like we do when porting our telephone profile — the mobile phone number — from one operator to another.”

However, “this form of ownership of one’s own profile data is certainly not enough,” he said.

Just as important is “interconnection: the operator to which we port our profile should be interconnected to the source operator so that we don’t lose contact with our online friends. This is possible today thanks to technologies like IPFS [InterPlanetary File System] and Solid, developed by the Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee,” he said.

Sarah Spiekermann, a professor at the Vienna University of Economics and Business (WU) and chair of its Institute for Management Information Systems, is another pioneer of online privacy who has long warned about the type of abuses seen with Facebook.

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