Lessons India can learn from Facebook scandals
A New York Times investigation has revealed that Facebook granted several online platforms access to their user data. This was done without the knowledge of users . These arrangements were negotiated with the knowledge of top management.
We can be sure that more revelations will come about. Investigations are finally disclosing its operational practices. For instance, the latest scandal comes only a few days after a committee of the UK Parliament revealed internal Facebook emails which document unethical and downright creepy behaviour. Those internal emails reveal a governing philosophy of “data reciprocity” set out by Mark Zuckerberg. They also document the use of a smartphone application that monitored device usage patterns and reported them back to Facebook. A specific slide had a chart mapping these trends specific to India. All of this was done without proper knowledge or consent of users purely for Facebook’s commercial benefit, even driving its acquisitions strategy.
The underlying reason to these continuing scandals is manifold, but this problem shares three common issues that go much beyond Facebook (although it is the most problematic and powerful ).
These are broad generalisations and many notable examples break from these trends, but the idea is to create a dialogue of learning to better serve technology innovations that provide value and comfort to millions of Indians.
The first is a lack of respect for the rights of users. This is because users are not viewed as individual human beings, but integers and aggregates, referred in pitch decks across the buzzing technology industry as “user base”, “active users”, or “number of downloads”. Product design is maximised towards growth and profit and in the service of shareholder value. Fundamental rights and ethics seem to be romantic ideals only fit for human rights defenders. Hence, retaining users attention, collection of personal data and targeting them with advertising is more important than caring for their mindfulness and privacy. When public scrutiny is visited, teams of lawyers, publicists and policy professionals put out ex-post remedies or justifications. They often lack independence and power within companies. Organisational processes need to change with the objective to build collaborative models between managerial, engineering and legal teams for an impact assessment on individual rights.
The second is an organisational resistance within some technology companies to dump systems which derive from neo-liberal ideals of a laissez-faire efficiency. It is not out of place for start-up founders to describe their mission with the enthusiasm and overconfidence that is necessary to build wonderful innovations loved by millions. This, unfortunately, casts a long shadow. There is an underlying ambition to profit by posing radical change most closely captured in phrases such as, “disrupt”, “hustle”, “leapfrog”, etc. When such changes occur, companies often build operational monopolies and derive incredible power in specific segments and markets. At the same time, they continue to view regulatory compliance as a check-box which serves little to no public need. With the increasing physicality of digital services, their close integration with systems results in tangible, deep harm playing out in a spectrum of manifestations from issues of contract labour and the gig economy to financial systems which are open to frauds and lack consumer safeguards. We cannot continue racing on the track of innovation without regulatory seat belts. Sustainable and positive growth is only possible with a better dialogue on devising regulation, not evading it.
The third and final trend is the role of the government. From privacy to misinformation, the government not only lacks institutional capacity and expertise but further compounds these problems by advancing demands to gain control and power. At the same time, it also adopts policies which completely erase user protections to advance economic interests of local startups. For instance, breaking end-to-end encryption as has repeatedly demanded by the Indian Government undermines user privacy. In addition it repeatedly attempts to introduce harsh criminal laws and to undermine intermediary liability protections to target political criticism. At the same time, the process of designing policy documents or regulations devalues experts from the academics, civil society and digital rights communities, and is shrouded in opacity. At cynical moments, one can almost imagine each policy document and regulation as a means to increase the power of technology companies, especially global platforms, and of the government in the interests of surveillance and censorship. This needs to stop with a positive articulation starting with a strong, user-centric privacy law.
At this moment, such a view will be faulted by many who champion the cause of innovation. It may even seem the opinion of a Luddite, but it is an inescapable conclusion that despite the growing number of people using the internet in India, there is also a growing trust deficit in Facebook. We should go beyond blaming Facebook or its users. We should certainly demand accountability from it and investigate its wrongdoings. But we need to look beyond . If data scandals of this year have taught us anything, it is that profit follows trust of users which is earned by respecting individual rights. This is good for business.
Apar Gupta is the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation.
The views expressed are personal