Isn’t it ironic? Facebook CEO wants privacy the week GDPR becomes law

21 May 2018

European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. Image: Artens/Shutterstock

As GDPR becomes law in the week ahead, Europe may also see Facebook’s CEO testify. It will be a vital lesson for all of us about the value of privacy, writes John Kennedy.

This Friday (25 May), the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) becomes law across the EU.

GDPR will bring with it hefty fines for any company or organisation that fails to protect the data privacy of consumers.

Only time will tell if GDPR in its current format is too onerous or if it is prescient in preparing Europeans for the oncoming realities of the digital age.

Legal precedents are going to be set and most notable among the new powers will be the ability of citizens to take legal action against errant operators. Fines may be the least of some companies’ problems.

Either way, GDPR sets a benchmark that other nations and various tech platforms across the world are likely to follow.

The realities of the digital age we are all in became painfully obvious in March when news broke of the Cambridge Analytica affair. On 17 March, both the Observer and The New York Times revealed the story about how a political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica had harvested Facebook users’ data to effectively game political outcomes through misinformation and targeted advertising.

It is understood that at least 87m people had their data harvested from Facebook because of the use of an app called This Is Your Digital Life, which took advantage of privacy weaknesses in Facebook’s app ecosystem.

Many of us go through life thinking our digital enemies are bored teenage boys in bedrooms armed with code and malice, looking for our credit card numbers. What Cambridge Analytica revealed is that those we should fear the most are well heeled, educated and urbane, live five-star lives and rub shoulders in the corridors of power.

Cambridge Analytica as a company imploded under the weight of bad press, but a veil of innocence was lifted from our eyes.

Particularly scary is the implication of how such interests could undermine democracy and play a role in shock outcomes such as the election of Donald Trump as president of the US, or the UK’s potentially disastrous decision to leave the EU.

Indeed, in the fallout that followed, Facebook said it was investigating to see if there were more Cambridge Analytica data scandals waiting to be revealed. What was particularly mesmerising was how little Facebook itself appeared to know about how its systems were gamed by nefarious political or business interests.

Zuckerberg: The man and the machine he created

Not long after the revelations, we were treated to the sight of a besuited Mark Zuckerberg appearing before US Congress for a very light grilling. The esteemed senators seemed more in awe of Zuckerberg’s entrepreneurial nous, focusing on basic queries about how the internet worked rather than giving him a hard time about data privacy or asking probing questions about the future of democracy in a data-hungry world.

It emerged that in recent weeks, Zuckerberg has agreed to meet European Parliament politicians, where it is highly unlikely he will be given such an easy ride. It will be brutal. Facebook knows it, and Zuckerberg knows it, too.

I suppose we should be flattered. The CEO’s appearance should be a coup for Brussels since he rebuffed requests to appear before MPs at the UK parliament in London. Instead, the Zuck sent Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer, who stuck to the script amid a brutal interrogation.

What is ironic, however, is that Zuckerberg’s attendance before European MEPs is to be a private affair. Rather than appear before the whole parliament, he has agreed to meet eight MEPs tomorrow (22 May) to discuss Cambridge Analytica. There will be no cameras.

Yep, the CEO of a tech company whose platform is used by billions is setting the terms for which he will meet with lawmakers operating on behalf of the rights of hundreds of millions of people in Europe. What next, a guard of honour? An ermine cloak?

In a situation not dripping with irony, MEPs have quite understandably rebelled against this and there have been calls for the meeting to be live-streamed over the internet.

It remains to be seen in the week ahead, where GDPR is set to become the defining privacy law of our times, if Zuckerberg will testify before the public.

I hope he does, because it is the people who have made Facebook – not clever algorithms, not big corporate advertisers, not coders wanting to put a dent in the universe by breaking things. It is the people who have made Facebook and who have in turn made Zuckerberg a very rich man with a blessed life. He should be grateful. And the people should have their answers.

People don’t want to see scripts or lawyers or overpaid policy chiefs spouting jargon. They aren’t even looking for contrition. They certainly don’t want a pound of flesh. They just want to know that they are respected and their rights are taken seriously, that Facebook is their friend.

They want to know that Facebook and other giants of Silicon Valley don’t see them as fodder to grease the wheels of their money machines and keep the fat cats of Wall Street in the style they are accustomed to.

I personally do not believe that Zuckerberg et al intended for any of this to happen. They simply see the possibilities and ideals of technology. But, as they march ahead bringing out new features and golly-gee-whizz tools, they often don’t see the silk-lined suits on the flanks attempting to oil their own greasy tills.

Data is the new oil, we are constantly told. And GDPR will set a global standard.

While meeting a handful of MEPs is a compromise, either way Zuckerberg should testify before Europe and before a live web stream.

It is fundamentally important to Facebook and its 2.2bn active users. Moreover, it is important to Zuckerberg personally. Because people need to know the man behind the machine and whether he has their back.

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