EU data protection supervisor calls for regulation of ‘misleading’ social media

21 Mar 2018

Giovanni Buttarelli. Image: European Parliament/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

EU data protection supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli says relying on the goodwill of tech companies to regulate themselves is not enough.

The aftershocks of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal are still reverberating around the world, and a well-timed statement from European data protection supervisor Giovanni Buttarelli shows that the EU is deadly serious about the need to regulate social media and big tech companies with a firm hand.

Cambridge Analytica fallout

Future Human

The opinion, published on 19 March, will likely get more attention in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica affair and the drastic effect it is continuing to have on Facebook’s stock value (and, indeed, the public’s opinion of the social network).

Buttarelli also told reporters yesterday (20 March) that national authorities from across the EU should form a taskforce to investigate the possibility that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook broke the bloc’s stringent data protection laws. “None of us may succeed alone. A joint action is needed.”

‘The scandal of the century’

Buttarelli posited that the recent revelations could become “the scandal of the century”. While he did not want to resort to scaremongering, he said the issue is “real and huge” and added that national authorities are already communicating across the EU.

In the opinion published earlier this week, Buttarelli noted that the original utopian vision for the internet is no longer tenable. “This digital ecosystem has connected people across the world with over 50pc of the population on the internet, albeit very unevenly in terms of geography, wealth and gender.

“The initial optimism about the potential of internet tools and social media for civic engagement has given way to concern that people are being manipulated; first, through the constant harvesting of often intimate information about them; second, through the control over the information they see online according to the category they are put into.”

Virality drives profits

Buttarelli noted that virality is a commodity many of these companies often rely on. “Viral outrage for many algorithm-driven services is a key driver of value, with products and applications that are designed to maximise attention and addiction. Connectedness, at least under the current model, has led to division.”

He also said that the often-touted AI systems used by many companies are not reliable. “Artificial intelligence systems – the market for which is also characterised by concentration – are themselves powered by data and will, if unchecked, increase the remoteness and unaccountability of the decision-making in this environment.”

Online manipulation is “a symptom of the opacity and lack of accountability in the digital ecosystem”, Buttarelli wrote.

GDPR will change things

While the data protection authorities do not yet have the power to conduct EU-wide inquiries, they could still voluntarily create a taskforce, much like the one set up in the case of the recent Uber investigation.

In just a few months, GDPR will change this, putting more power in watchdogs’ hands and raising the spectre of steep fines.

Irish Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon said her office is “following up with Facebook Ireland in relation to what forms of active oversight of app developers and third parties that utilise their platform is in place”.

The president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, has invited Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to speak at a hearing, while the UK parliament also summoned him to give evidence to MPs.

Buttarelli concluded by saying: “It is not enough to rely on the goodwill of ultimately unaccountable commercial players. We need now to intervene in the interests of spreading more fairly the benefits of digitisation.”

Giovanni Buttarelli. Image: European Parliament/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects