Time to regulate the internet


Privacy: When something is free, we are the product.

Mark Zuckerberg might believe the world is better without privacy. He’s wrong. It will be fantastically satisfying to see the boy genius flayed.

All the politicians—ironically, in search of a viral moment—will lash Mark Zuckerberg from across the hearing room.

They will corner Facebook’s founding bro, seeking to pin all manner of sin on him. This will make for scrumptious spectacle, but spectacle is a vacuous substitute for policy.

As Facebook’s scandals have unfolded, the backlash against Big Tech has accelerated at a dizzying pace.

Anger, however, has outpaced thinking.

The most fully drawn and enthusiastically backed proposal now circulating through Congress would regulate political ads that can appear on the platform, a law that hardly curbs the company’s power or profits.

And, it should be said, a law that does nothing to attack the core of the problem: the absence of governmental protections for personal data.

The defining fact of digital life is that the web was created in the libertarian frenzy of the 1990s.

As we privatized the net, releasing it from the hands of the government agencies that cultivated it, we suspended our inherited civic instincts.

Instead of treating the web like the financial system or aviation or agriculture, we refrained from creating the robust rules that would ensure safety and enforce our constitutional values.

This weakness has long been apparent to activists toiling on the fringes of debate—and the dangers might even have been apparent to most users of Facebook.

But it’s one thing to abstractly understand the rampant exploitation of data; it’s another to graphically see how our data can be weaponized against us.

And that’s the awakening occasioned by the rolling revelation of Facebook’s complicity in the debacle of the last presidential campaign.

The fact that Facebook seems unwilling to fully own up to its role casts further suspicion on its motives and methods.

And in the course of watching the horrific reports, the public may soon arrive at the realization that it is the weakness of our laws that has provided the basis for Facebook’s tremendous success.

If we step back, we can see it clearly: Facebook’s business model is the evisceration of privacy.

That is, it aims to induce its users into sharing personal information—what the company has called “radical transparency”—and then aims to surveil users to generate the insights that will keep them “engaged” on its site and to precisely target them with ads.

Although Mark Zuckerberg will nod in the direction of privacy, he has been candid about his true feelings.

In 2010 he said, for instance, that privacy is no longer a “social norm.” (Once upon a time, in a fit of juvenile triumphalism, he even called people “dumb fucks” for trusting him with their data.)

And executives in the company seem to understand the consequence of their apparatus.

When I recently sat on a panel with a representative of Facebook, he admitted that he hadn’t used the site for years because he was concerned with protecting himself against invasive forces.

We need to constantly recall this ideological indifference to privacy, because there should be nothing shocking about the carelessness revealed in the Cambridge Analytica episode.

Facebook apparently had no qualms about handing over access to your data to the charlatans working on behalf Cambridge Analytica—expending nary a moment’s time vetting them or worrying about whatever ulterior motives they might have had for collecting so much sensitive information.

This wasn’t an isolated incident.

Facebook gave away access to data harvesters as part of a devil’s bargain with third-party app developers.

The company needed relationships with these developers, because their applications lured users to spend ever more time on Facebook.

As my colleague Alexis Madrigal has written, Facebook maintained lax standards for the harvest of data, even in the face of critics who stridently voiced concerns.

Mark Zuckerberg might believe that world is better without privacy.

But we can finally see the costs of his vision.

Our intimate information was widely available to malicious individuals, who hope to manipulate our political opinions, our intellectual habits, and our patterns of consumption; it was easily available to the proprietors of Cambridge Analytica.

Facebook turned data—which amounts to an X-ray of the inner self—into a commodity traded without our knowledge. Continue reading

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