Shutterstock/Ollyy. All rights reserved.The Cam-Book gate is creating ripples across the world as both Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scramble to control the damage. The data extracted from Facebook without the informed consent of the users was allegedly used to influence the outcome of the US elections, which saw the rise of Trump and his acolytes to power. Suggestions are being made that Brexit was orchestrated by using similar tactics. Cambridge Analytica has maintained that it obtained the data legally.
There is noise coming out of India as well about data breaches. It is mere politicking and not a serious debate as it is a country with no robust privacy laws, and the state is more than happy to give corporations such as Facebook enough leeway as long as they toe its line. India has requested user data from Facebook more than every other country except the United States. In the recent past, Facebook has also blocked users from Indian Occupied Kashmir for expressing anti-India sentiments on its platform and so has Twitter. Were it not for the whistle-blower Christopher Wylie, how many Facebook users would have been aware of the pervasive data-gathering tactics of the social media behemoth?
It is disappointing to see that while it has been well documented how Facebook has been violating the privacy of its users, users seem not to care. The good old ‘I have nothing to hide’ argument is peddled left, right, and centre. People appear to have wholeheartedly embraced a disturbing ‘exhibitionism’, argues Bernard Harcourt in his must-read book ‘Exposed-Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age’. This is not the end of the road: Facebook’s hunger for data has only grown regardless of how much its users provide willingly.
Facebook has aggressively pursued a merger and acquisitions strategy from its earliest days, and has so far succeeded in acquiring as many as 67 businesses, including other tech giants such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Jibbigo, tbh, and ConnectU among others. Many of these acquisitions were purely data grabbing exercises, as was pointed out in case of the WhatsApp acquisition. It has spent millions of dollars to reinforce its capacity to target its users with a barrage of ads, the same feature which was allegedly exploited by the Trump campaign.
Let’s forget politics for a minute, and talk about how Facebook boosts the numbers of likes and engagement for pages that pay for such a boost. A YouTube channel by the name of Veritasium pointed out way back in 2014 that Facebook utilises click farms in third-world countries to increase the number of likes for pages, a practice that Facebook says is a violation of its policies.
Facebook, in fact, has never really cared about users’ privacy: privacy and Facebook’s business model, to put it bluntly, are antithetical to one another. It is ironic that the same company has put itself in charge of the fight against ‘fake news’.
So what Cambridge-Analytica did was that to apply these practices, which are central to Facebook’s business model and known to its clients, to politics. The question that arises is – was this a first of its kind occurrence? Not at all.
The US elections were not the first time Facebook has played a central part in shaping the outcome of an election. How Team Obama made use of Facebook in its campaign for a second term is well known and has become part of academic literature as well. Although, Obama campaign managers claim that they used the data scrupulously, a Guardian story from 2012 says, “The re-election team, Obama for America, will be inviting its supporters to log on to the campaign website via Facebook, thus allowing the campaign to access their personal data and add it to the central data store”.
Furthermore, The Intercept reported on March 14, 2018, how Facebook ‘quietly hid’ all the blog posts where the company was apparently bragging about its ability to influence elections. So, why this outpouring of outrage and disbelief that something like this could happen. Why are the hashtags of #deletefacebook being endorsed by the likes of Musk, now? The answer apparently is the rise of Trump to power. Framing the issue of privacy violation as a subset of Trump’s rise to power is deeply problematic. Are we being asked to really only care about our privacy when distasteful politics like that of Trump comes to the fore?
For us to care about the practices of corporations, reclaim our privacy and contest mass-surveillance we should not need the shock therapy of Trumpian politics. Privacy and consent are the two essential pillars that support the idea of liberty itself. Take either of them away, you either get coercion or self-censorship, and potentially on a massive scale. Privacy is far too important to be thought of as a by-product of other processes; it is worth defending and demanding in its own right.