Do we need a Magna Carta for social media?

16 Jul 2018

Magna Carta embroidery by Cornelia Parker at the British Library. Image: Gabriele Gelsi/Shutterstock

It remains to be seen what impact GDPR will have. Meanwhile, we need the internet giants to want to protect people and their data, writes John Kennedy.

On a rainy afternoon in Killarney in 2009, the then CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, flew his own aircraft and landed in the Kerry town’s nearby airport before meeting 2,500 Googlers who were assembled for an annual sales shindig. Making time to meet journalists beforehand, Schmidt was asked about the internet giant’s ‘Don’t be evil’ policy on data.

Schmidt said that if Google betrayed the trust it had with its users just once, it would be game over.

Zoom forward nine years and the world has had its head dunked in an icy bucket of water when it comes to education about data and responsibility in the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica affair with another internet giant, Facebook.

It has emerged that Facebook may be subject to an investigation by the Irish Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) after it was advised to explore how the social network targets its 2bn-plus users.

Last week, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) in the UK said it intends to hand Facebook a £500,000 fine, and accused the social network of not protecting user data. This could be just the tip of the iceberg.

A report by the ICO revealed that “significant privacy risks” arise from the freedom the social media giant gives its advertisers. It has been reported that the ICO will be asking the DPC to explore a “wider examination of online platforms’ use of special categories of data in their targeted advertising models”.

For me, the illusion or the romance of the hacker culture that Facebook has tried to cultivate or preserve, harking back to its early days of coders in dorm rooms, just fell away in those heady days following the revelations about how the social network was gamed by nefarious political interests. Even Facebook appeared to be at a loss to explain what was happening and what it had unleashed.

Simply put, Facebook is now a corporate beast with all the trappings that go with it.

I was struck by the peculiar juxtaposition of polished lawyers and policy advisers speaking earnestly before a Dáil committee and the likelihood that as they spoke, someone, maybe an office worker in Kilkenny or a student in Cork, was probably sharing cat videos and unknowingly making the social network richer.

A new code for care is needed

Facebook is a rudely rich data giant – in its most recent financial results, it posted close to $12bn in revenues in just one quarter.

However, the mask of the hacker culture ‘putting a dent in the universe’ is slipping. With great data, comes great responsibility.

I don’t think for a second that Mark Zuckerberg ever foresaw what Facebook would become but as it grew, so too have the armies of lawyers, shareholders and, of course, thousands of employees to feed.

The growth rates must be dizzying and intoxicating. In March, a memo defending Facebook’s growth through questionable contact-importing practices by one of Zuckerberg’s staunchest allies, Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth, was dubbed the ‘ugly truth memo’.

“We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact-importing practices,” Bosworth wrote.

The sad thing about this is that it reveals how companies that may in their hearts want to change the world can become slaves to the grind of demonstrating unrelenting growth to shareholders.

What trust looks like

I have never met Zuckerberg but I was in the same room as him in 2014 when he deftly parried questions at Mobile World Congress from anxious mobile executives who were curious about the effect platforms such as WhatsApp and Messenger would have on their traditional revenues from voice calls and texts. Zuckerberg was alert and erudite, more than a match for the executives who were decades his senior.

I have, however, met Google’s Schmidt and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on at least two occasions each, and found them to be mindful about their respective organisations’ impact on the world. You got the sense that they were contemplative and reflective about what was happening around them.

Last year, when I met Dorsey at Twitter’s international headquarters, he listened intently to bloggers such as Sinéad Burke (aka @MinnieMelange) and others such as Harry McCann of the Irish Youth Council discuss the impact Twitter had on their lives.

I got the sense that Dorsey wants to leave a legacy and he spoke about how he hoped that Twitter as a company would “endure forever”.

Crucially, the company has been at pains to get to grips with bullying and trolls who have terrorised others using its platform. Twitter’s actions in recent weeks and days, however, are indicative of a social network keen to strike the right chord and become a source of authenticity rather than noise. Facebook should follow suit.

Twitter is cleaning up its birdhouse and, in doing so, began purging fake follower accounts in what is known as the great #Twittercull, which has seen Katy Perry lose 1.5m followers and Trump wave goodbye to 400,000.

While a good start, Twitter probably has a long way to go before the platform can be fully free of the noise and becomes the utopia of meaningful conversations that it wants to become.

We have to stop talking about social media as if it is something new. Truly, it has been around for pretty much half of the time that we have had the internet.

As we wait for GDPR’s impact to truly become felt in Europe, perhaps it is time for the social media giants themselves to sign up to a duty of care. To put their cards on the table, so to speak.

As we enter a world where we are surrounded by sensors that anticipate our needs by enabling advertisers to target us more efficiently through our homes, our cars and any device we use, it is time for the internet giants to agree to some kind of Magna Carta.

Three years ago, an Irish delegation from the Irish Government-supported Insight Centre for Data Analytics delivered a proposal to create a ‘Magna Carta for Data’ to the European Parliament in Brussels.

In 13th-century England, the barons forced King John to sign a Magna Carta guaranteeing them greater rights and freedoms.

In the 21st century, those who guard our data are the new overlords, whether they want to be or not, and they need to be proactive rather than legally compelled to protect people.

Simply put, don’t be evil, or allow others to do evil on the platforms that you have built.

Magna Carta embroidery by Cornelia Parker at the British Library. Image: Gabriele Gelsi/Shutterstock

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years