As Zuckerberg underwent his 10 hour long interrogation this week on Capitol Hill, we observed him bob, weave and genuflect through the complicated maze of citizens’ rights to privacy and control of their data, the limits to those rights and exactly how much we give away in service of the connectivity and opportunity that Facebook and other such social platforms provide. We saw the congressmen and women, with a couple exceptions, struggle to corner the icon or catch him in dishonesty because of a combination of their inability to phrase technically-savvy questions and his razor-sharp intelligence.
Thus is the paradox. Almost all of us use technology but only a small percentage really understands how technology works. Those who understand how it works have an extraordinary advantage over those who do not. Yet Zuckerberg could not help but look like an unfaithful husband desperately seeking to save a marriage after being caught in an affair. You see, each of us who use Facebook are in a relationship with Mark which many believed was monogamous — in fact it’s been a threesome.
The defining feature of our time is our hyper-connectivity and its precious progeny, big data. Every time we share, post, message, send a Whatsapp, or use a credit card online, we are acting as “Data-Producers ”. Seduced by the promise of fun, the latest goods, connectivity, or some mind-numbing activity, Data-Producers create and exchange their data freely with the “Data Aggregators ” (mostly app and platform developers). Most Data-Producers are unaware that there is an outside person in their relationship with the Data-Aggregators — i.e. the “Data-Consumers ” — companies, universities, research facilities, think tanks and political groups which then analyse large data sets to uncover patterns, trends, and associations, relating to human behaviour and interactions. Some Data-Consumers like research organisations collate and analyse data to increase knowledge, spur innovation and development and others do it in order to exert influence over human behaviour.
Facebook is the largest Data-Aggregator of our time and nothing prepared us or them for the sledgehammer effect of the Cambridge Analytica disclosures on how Facebook uses data. The CA scandal also exposed the previously camouflaged relationship between Data-Aggregators and Data-Consumers. With access to aggregate data, both Data-Aggregators and Data-Consumers now know more about Data-Producers than they know about themselves.
This raises the unavoidable political question of whose data is it? Who has the right to that data and the power to withhold, disclose, in anyway control or to use that data? Should it be us, or Mark, or, (please not) the Data-Consumers?
Like jilted partners, Data-Producers are deleting their accounts left, right and center with retorts like “they are selling my data and I’m not making anything from it!”, “targeting me with fake news!” and “I won’t be a product!” — making a stand for Data-Producer rights on the political question of who should have power over data. Data-Aggregators and Data-Consumers, unsurprisingly, are scrambling to justify billion-dollar business models built on monetizing user data to maximize profit over privacy.
But is this a zero-sum game? Yes, Facebook is not the idealized platform for connectivity and opportunity. However, isn’t it something much greater?
These people breaking up with Facebook are choosing to leave an unprecedented, and until recently, unimaginable, collective of 2.13 billion people of which over 730,000 are from Trinidad and Tobago. If this collective were a country it would be the largest country on the planet by almost 1 billion people and growing at the rate of 14% per year. A collective where over 2.4 million pieces of information are shared every minute and which has over 100 million people interacting in meaningful online communities. A collective which actually could catalyse new types of not only economic power but of socio-political power as well.
Undoubtedly, innovation has outpaced regulation. Under interrogation, Zuckerberg conceded that the European GDPR was a progressive step in data protection and that Facebook was willing voluntarily to comply with this regulation worldwide. In a Data-Chess game, that Zuckerberg move would have been a Check. If Zuckerberg does follow through, this would mean that for countries like US and Trinidad and Tobago, where politicians are dragging their feet on comprehensive Data Protection legislation, corporations would be providing more protection of fundamental human rights to privacy than governments.