Develop effective policies to regulate tech giants
It was a leap year. The year of the Athens Olympics. Only four years since Y2K, George W Bush would win his second term as President in November, and there would be a devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean towards the fag end of the year. But early in 2004, recovering from an almost expulsion from Harvard for having hacked their student directories to create Facemash (a sort of ‘Hot or Not’ ranking site for Harvard students) and having had Facemash unceremoniously taken down, a 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg was toying with code to create a way to connect all the student directories (called “face books”) of Harvard. This project was launched 15 years ago on February 4, 2004, as The Facebook. It was such a hit that within a month of going live, more than half the undergraduate students of Harvard had signed up to the service. In about three months, it had expanded to most universities in the US and Canada. By June, it had become an incorporated company, set up headquarters in Palo Alto, California, and was well on its way to becoming the social media behemoth it now is.
In the past 15 years, with their famous “move fast and break things” mantra, Facebook (having dropped the definite article from its name) has managed to go from being a place where people found old, long lost school friends in the mid-2000s, to being the harbinger of borderless digital movements, such as the one that aided the Arab Spring and Occupy Movements in the early 2010s, to now being one of the Big Four in the technology world, and one of the worst offenders in terms of privacy, surveillance, harassment, and bad psychological effects. The rise and growth of Facebook — which now owns Instagram and WhatsApp — has allowed it to become, in many ways, the largest purveyor of ways in which people share content or communicate with each other across the world.
Not only has this radically changed the way we communicate with friends, family, social acquaintances, and even colleagues, it has also created a system of amplification for the worst tendencies of human beings — be it bullying, hate speech, spreading malicious rumours (sometimes euphemistically referred to as fake news), or misogyny. The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed that Facebook had allowed the harvesting of personal data of up to 87 million users without their consent. It brought into focus exactly how much power companies, such as Facebook, wield. And how easy it is for someone to manipulate public opinion using social media.
The crux of the matter is that Facebook — and indeed Google and Twitter and Uber and Amazon — are not merely companies that connect people. They are centres of an advertising marketplace, in which you, the user, is the product being sold to the advertisers. Make no mistake, the goal is still to make you buy things — be they in-game purchases of boosters for your sword, a politician’s position on important political matters, or a new brand of toothpaste — but in a way that allows these companies to know a lot more about you than you may want (or choose to tell them). As he faced American lawmakers, Zuckerberg was asked how Facebook made money, and he answered, simply, “we run ads”. What he chose to not mention was that these ads are targeted to individual users based on not just what they share or say on Facebook, but by collecting data about their behaviour across the internet.
Fifteen years ago, it would have been unthinkable that a Silicon Valley tech company was being blamed for everything, from a teenager’s suicide in the UK to ethnic violence in Myanmar, according to the UN. But that is the world that Facebook built for us as it became the world’s largest social media site; and one that we must now learn to live and survive in.
The way forward from here must, therefore, necessarily be one of regulation of technology giants through forward-thinking digital policies that will create safeguards for users of platforms such as Facebook. India has made a good beginning by creating one of the world’s most robust net neutrality laws. Europe’s General Data Protection regulation (GDPR) is another step in the right direction. But far more needs to be done in order to regulate the manner in which technology companies control the world. The onus, however, is not just on governments. As users, we must demand the right to own our data and know how it is used and by who — be it Facebook, or even our elected governments.
Vidya Subramanian is a post doctoral research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, IIT Bombay
The views expressed are personal