Current topics explained by RUG experts
Assistant professor of American studies
‘I’ve got mixed feelings when it comes to the rumours about Facebook/Cambridge Analytica; the way I see it, they’re mainly part of a deligimitising narrative by liberals who are unable or unwilling to accept the fact that Trump won, or that the UK voted in favour of Brexit, or the general rise of nationalism. I mean, are these stories really that different from the ones that circulated during earlier campaigns?
Former Obama strategist Betsy Hoover says that in 2008, Facebook’s Terms of Service said that entities like the Obama campaign could use an app that gave them access to users social network, if the users gave their permission for this. She is trying to make a distinction between what the Democrats were doing at the time and what Cambridge Analytica did. There are indeed important differences, but they are nothing compared to the similarities. This subject has nothing to do with party lines; rather, it’s asking us to consider the limits we think a dominant platform such as Facebook should be subject to.
I think that companies such as Facebook are monopolies, and we give them our data almost without thinking. Their goal is to make money off of us, not to improve our lives. Such companies should be scrutinised even more thoroughly than the media is doing at present, as they are a prominent part where we are right now in the development of capitalism.
We have to consider the rise of monopolies such as Facebook, Google, and Apple in the same manner we think about issues such as Trump, Brexit, etc. Both types of subject tie in to how capitalism has developed over the past forty years, being less regulated and affording more freedom of capital. That same ‘‘freedom’’ of capital that makes moving the manufacture of products to cheap countries such as Mexico of China possible (an important factor in Trump’s victory in the elections) is what enable companies such as Facebook and Amazon to keep growing without every reaching any limits.’
Assistant professor at the Centre for Media and Journalism Studies
‘Facebook, like most digital platforms, employs empty templates that are user-generated. The more information you provide the platform, the more accurately it can predict things. That is why Facebook wants to know so much about you, from your religion to what type of shoes you wear. Facebook then uses what you shared with them as data that describes who ‘you’ are – a profile or map that the company sells to third parties for personalised ads. They may sell to companies such as Nike, but also to Cambridge Analytica.
However, it goes even further: Facebook has made its API (Application Programming Interface) publicly available. This allows other companies to build applications on top of Facebook’s infrastructure. Think of the ‘log in with Facebook’ option that so many apps have. This generates even more data about you, such as the games you play, how long, where, and with whom. Facebook can use this data to expand your profile, making it even more attractive to third party users.
The next generation of voters may not be on Facebook (many young people don’t use the platform, partly because their mothers are on it), but they do use other platforms that use the same methods. Big data analysis can be used for so much. With each like, share, comment, or post, you give away a piece of the puzzle of ‘you’.
The social range of platforms such as Facebook has the potential to be enormous, especially when they combine the data from different platforms. Our society is increasingly ‘platform-based’; large parts of our lives are directly connected to platforms and as such, to databases. And this development is only in its early stages. Fortunately, many people are protesting it.’
Coordinator of of IT law at the Faculty of Law
‘When I heard this, I thought: I’m so happy I don’t actively use Facebook. I did create an account years ago, but that’s because the rest of my family had one, too. No one ever reads the Facebook Terms of Service, of course. And that’’s not surprising, considering the language is really complicated. What happened in this case was that a Cambridge scientist acquired Facebook user data through an app and then passed it on to Cambridge Analytica.
According to our current privacy laws, this isn’t actually allowed. But the Facebook Terms of Service do state that when you install their app on your phone, you give them permission to access your contacts. And that’s what happened with Cambridge Analytica: that scientist gained access to people’s entire contact lists through their Facebook accounts. That is how Facebook works, and everyone who uses Facebook has given their permission for this.
On 25 May, the European privacy laws will be heavily amended, and Facebook will be affected as well. I don’t yet know how strict the laws will be upheld, because the Dutch watchdog, the Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, hasn’t actually used its authority to fine companies for years. The new legislation will mean that Facebook could be fined up to twenty million euros, or 4 percent of their annual sales.
The new law states that Terms of Service should be written in clear, understandable language, so people actually know what they’re giving their permission for. I think that would probably contribute to people’s awareness of the matter of privacy. But much more important than fines is the opinion of society as a whole. The current indignation about what Facebook is doing can be a powerful tool to coerce companies like this into sticking to the rules.’