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Facebook and the Challenges of Online Information: Three Questions to Gilles Babinet

BLOG - 7 June 2018

By Institut Montaigne

Last week was an emotional week for players in the world of technology. On Tuesday, 22 May, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, addressed the European Parliament. One month after a similar exercise in front of the US Senate, the relationship between the governing body and the California company remains tense. On Friday, 25 May, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) on the protection of personal data came into force while the second day (out of three) of the Vivatech technology exhibition was taking place at Porte de Versailles. The following interview was carried out with Gilles Babinet, our Contributor on digital issues, concerning these events, which mark a turning point in the digital era.

Following the many challenges Facebook has recently faced (interference, use of private data, disinformation), European lawmakers have threatened to dismantle Facebook. Is this an optimal solution?

Dismantling Facebook would be very aggressive towards our American partner in the context of latent commercial war. It is more likely that increasingly restrictive usage constraints will gradually emerge to prevent digital addiction, online harassment and disinformation. Portability and continuous, real-time access to private data could also constitute non-negotiable conditions and lay the foundations for antitrust in the data age. It should be remembered that while the GDPR imposes a principle of portability, it does not define its conditions. The real barrier to entry into massive data markets for third parties is largely linked to the conditions of access to this data, which is in Facebook’s possession.

Beyond Facebook's financial advantage, the Silicon Valley giant also benefits from an astronomical amount of data, ensuring the superiority of its products over those of its direct competitors. Today, competition is largely based on data. One could therefore imagine a mandatory application programming interface (API), which could be visualized as a small door through which Facebook could regulate access to the data they collect, making Facebook data accessible for innovation. Following the model of Image.net, a site offering thousands of images to developers of machine learning tools, such access would allow start-ups to benefit from a large body of data to perfect their algorithms. 

On the same topic, we could very well consider that regulation could also be carried out via APIs. Measurement in real time of the propagation of fake news in an effort to ensure that data is not leaked in an abnormal context could eventually be done by third parties, acting as an interface between public authorities and Facebook. This may seem like science fiction, but the future legitimacy of states may well come from their ability to put in place algorithmic regulations, that would go beyond the law. 

How does Facebook approach the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)? Will the GDPR reduce some of the contingent effects (interference, etc.) caused by Facebook? 

Facebook is probably already compatible with the GDPR, and it must be understood that Mark Zuckerberg's visit is within this context. Facebook's future will rely on increased transparency towards its users. Facebook's goal is to champion individual governance of personal data and thereby become the central platform for data administration, including with respect to third-party platforms. Some tools, such as Facebook Connect, which are already in place, are particularly suited to this strategy.

It is interesting to note that Mark Zuckerberg has announced that he will apply the standards set by the GDPR to users around the world. There is a certain hypocrisy in this declaration, insofar as outside of Europe, users do not benefit from the legal system linked to the GDPR (including the possibility of launching class actions, threats of penalties up to 4% of turnover, etc.). Thus, if these data are easily available to users outside Europe, consumers have no leverage in case of infringement concerning the use of their data. 

However, this declaration demonstrates a willingness to be more transparent towards Facebook users. Facebook can only maintain its dominance if users trust the services it offers. Recent scandals have significantly affected the company, even if this is not immediately visible in terms of financial results (Facebook presented good results in April for Q1 2018, with a 49% increase in turnover over the year 2017). In the United States, the number of daily users decreased at the end of 2017. The issue for Facebook is preventing this from happening elsewhere.

Tristan Harris, a former Google employee working on social network addiction issues, was also in Paris on 22 and 23 May. Social network addiction is considered one of the causes of online disinformation. Is this subject taken into account?

Facebook could be criticized regarding its business model, which is largely based on addiction (hidden behind the term ‘commitment’) and virality (which makes content that appeals to feelings, including hatred and rejection, more visible). Public health issues connected with digital addiction are largely underestimated, particularly in Europe; many medical observers no longer hesitate to compare the probable impact of Facebook, indeed all social media, to the addiction caused by tobacco consumption: children and young adults no longer exercise, increase their exposure to anxiety and depression, etc. In any event, unless there is a major change, this could have significant impact on the life expectancy of the entire population. This is a subject ignored by the political body and has similarities with the attitude it maintained for decades towards cigarettes. Measures such as the setting up of a warning system for abusive use should be explored.  

For Europe, this is a critical opportunity to pursue a strong policy. The question of regulating the very design of platforms that encourage this addictive behaviour deserves to be addressed in the context of a democratic debate. As far as young people are concerned, at the risk of sounding reactionary, I welcome the Minister of Education’s decision to ban the use of mobile phones within secondary schools, which seems to be a step in the right direction in an attempt to fight the addiction to social networks. Unfortunately, before smartphones can be integrated into new educational protocols, this is what needs to be done, as the problems associated with chronic attention disorders seem to be growing rapidly. 

Finally, the last major criticism concerns the issue of fake news, regarding which a law is currently under debate. This is a global problem, of concern insofar as it may affect the healthy functioning of democracy, and, without delving into the details of these issues, it seems to me that more than one law will be needed to overcome them. 

 

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