In early 2018, a data abuse scandal engulfed the social media giant Facebook.
The story concerned a dataset that had been compiled by a group of researchers attached to Cambridge University. That data – consisting of personal information derived from the Facebook accounts of millions of users and the metadata connecting them to other active users of the site – was delivered for monetary gain to a consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica, which used it to engineer campaign victories for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Mark Zuckerberg’s explanations in his post on his own site, along with explanations to Wired magazine that he hoped to find out if there were “other Cambridge Analyticas out there” belied the fact that a story such as this was always an accident waiting to happen. For anyone with the wherewithal to pay attention, it was clearly part of the model of Facebook to assemble as much user-generated data as quickly as possible – and to create new business models to turn that social activity into profit.
The Facebook CEO and his lawyers were happy to place blame with the consulting firm from the outset. It is true that the dataset Cambridge Analytica acquired (or misappropriated) was assembled by a researcher before certain safeguards were introduced, so such an outcome would be all but impossible now. Yet a top Facebook lawyer, Paul Grewal, actually defended the very policies that permitted the data collection, saying that everyone involved “gave their consent.”
It often is in hindsight that the best intentions are formed.
Even four years ago, users of social media were much less aware of how their data could be manipulated and profited from by others, just as almost no-one was aware of the long-term implications when Facebook got started in the first place – perhaps not even Mark Zuckerberg himself.
The tech data giants have in recent years become so dominant that many prominent voices argue seriously that they should be broken up by governments.
Facebook has in effect become a massive storefront, a cyber Walmart in a wide-open space without competitors, one that can even sell the populace cut-price presidents – and some commentators have spoken of how the scandal may have irreparably damaged the political ambitions held by Zuckerberg himself. If the government were to step in and cut Facebook down to size, this anti-monopoly move would be seen by some as negating fair competition and by others as protecting it. For many analysts, the FANGS (Facebook, Amazon, Google) simply loom too large.
But something else has been going on in the background. A development of immense importance has been the inception of the cryptoeconomy. Blockchain is now among us. Looking forward, viable applications of decentralized computing may be a way in which things like personal data from media and personal stored data are treated differently by everyone – and the monetary value of data might not absorbed by one or two companies but distributed among users along with the encrypted information. Indelible blockchain record keeping could also be one way that the double defensive maneuver of Cambridge Analytica – insisting that they destroyed the data after using it for banal purposes – wouldn’t fly. Greater self-awareness of the value of social media data to third parties might mean two options: first, trying to create networks closed to prying eye; second, to put everything out there but make sure that a share of the profit from the user-made content goes to me, the user. One could also be self-aware and use two social accounts in two very different ways.
Just imagine if Alphabet’s and Facebook’s profits were distributed among their user base as micro-payments instead of always being siphoned upwards. It’s the kind of thing that might keep a data baron or two awake at night.