Why Facebook needs better regulation

What’s the problem with the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica furore?

It could be argued that we all know that Facebook uses and markets our personal data as payment for allowing us to use its services without payment at the point of use. We also know that advertisers have always tried to target their messages to what they thought were our personality types and likely purchasing habits. Political parties do the same based on people’s concerns and likely voting habits.

So why all the fuss? Is all this not just a more sophisticated version of what has always been done? Is it all just a matter of degree and reach rather than any kind of fundamental change?

Actually, there are some major and substantive differences.

First, the use of our personal data. Unfortunately, we have all become used to ticking whatever box pops up saying we agree to terms and conditions. None of us has any clue what we are signing up to. And it’s not reasonable that we should be expected to read through pages of legalese every time we visit a website or use an online service.

This is therefore an area where the only solution is regulation. Regulators must set the parameters of what is and what is not acceptable and permissible. Those who faithfully believe in market forces as the answer to everything are wrong in this case and must be ignored.

By all accounts (and I am no expert), the data that Cambridge Analytica got hold of broke the rules – both the regulators’ rules and Facebook’s own internal rules on data use.

But maybe more important is the second part of this puzzle. If bots were set up to have social media conversations with potential voters – if bots pretended to be real people and proceeded to use their knowledge of the psychological profiles of their targets and the nature of their conversation to manipulate their voting intentions – then the problem is serious.

It is a golden rule in advertising and promotion that any ad or promotional campaign is explicit in making clear to its audience that this is a paid-for campaign. Audiences then know that they are being sold to and can treat the campaign with the appropriate amount of scepticism.

These online campaigns did no such thing. If they posed as real people having real conversations, they therefore lied and misled.

Yes, campaigns – whether commercial or political – have always tried their best to manipulate people to their own ends. Many, especially in the political realm, are not particularly truthful. But what we are seeing here is of a different nature.

Technology moves fast and what people can do with technology runs well ahead of our ability to regulate it and enforce those regulations. The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal must fire up regulators to come down fast and hard on these abuses.

No other approach has any chance of working. Sadly, this one may not either.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Paul Gregory says

    Full agreement. But I’d go further. Facebook along with Google et al rely on advertising. Corporate expenditure on advertising is tax-deductible. Why? Seeing that advertising is purposefully one-sided, and so fundamentally misinformation, is there any conceivable justification for this? We might also call advertising attempted brain-washing on a mass scale. Would that not be a crime against humanity? Or at least a crime against society?
    Advertising involves imposing itself, forcing the public to pay attention where they would not otherwise do so. Even looking or clicking away involves effort and steals time and attention from more worthy causes. It has grown into a monstrous poison of daily life.
    Clearly, advertising has gained such a foothold that it cannot be abolished or severely restricted overnight. This, if desirable, would be a generational thing. But a start could be made. We know that local reporting and other essential journalism are suffering harshly from the fact that income from advertising has dried up since it now goes to the likes of Facebook and Google. So one response would be to restrict where and when advertising is allowed, or at least, where it is tax deductible.
    If people want to use Facebook or Google, let them pay for it. Why should they be getting a free lunch, of dubious nutrional value, at the expense of others?

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