By Rafiq Raji, PhD
In April, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg endured two days of gruelling scrutiny by the United State Congress. He came out of it largely unruffled. There was not much that Mr Zuckerberg revealed that was not already known. But coming from the horse’s mouth as it were, it was chilling to say the least. “In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook for security reasons”, Mr Zuckerberg said in reply to a question by Ben Lujan, a member of Congress on the US House Energy and Commerce Committee. Mr Lujan replied almost in rebuke: “You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you are collecting data on people that are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement”. Mr Zuckerberg did not seem bothered: he simply justified the act. During the course of the hearings, it became clear that not only did Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm believed to have helped American Donald Trump’s election campaign, access the records of 87 million Facebook users’ without their consent, there were likely many more such firms and individuals doing similar or perhaps worse things. But why wouldn’t they? After all, Facebook already did whatever it liked.
Leader of the not so free world
Before Mr Zuckerberg’s testimony on the first day of the hearings, an army of photographers took pictures of every angle of his carriage. Not even Mr Trump or Fed chairman Jerome Powell get that level of attention these days. To the discerning, it perhaps became writ large that the most powerful person in the world may no longer be the person with the codes to the world’s largest and most lethal nuclear arsenal or the person able to sway global markets just by opening his mouth but an unassuming t-shirt wearing founder of a social media website. How the world has changed. Mr Zuckerberg is going to be appearing before many more congressional committees more often than he probably realises. The United Kingdom and European Union have asked that Mr Zuckerberg appear in person before their legislative bodies, for instance. There would likely be more.
In fact, the European Union has its eyes set on other tech firms. European Commissioner Vera Jourova put it this way to CNBC, an American television network, in about mid-April: “I don’t have doubts that there are some bad practices among other IT providers and networks. So what I have said about GDPR (the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation) and our serious intention to have the data of all people protected, it applies to everybody, it’s not only related to Facebook”. The GDPR may perhaps become the global model for regulating tech firms that collect personal data and earn income by selling or drawing profitable insights from them. It is not so much that what they do is wrong as it is that they should not be able to do so without the consent of the owners; who should also be able to profit from them if they so wish.
To his credit, Mr Zuckerberg recognises that regulation of his service and those of other tech firms is inevitable. So he did not waste time trying to dissuade the legislators from that line of action. What was clear was that Facebook desired that it should still be allowed tremendous legroom. But judging from the many prominent people who have deleted their Facebook accounts and the scary revelations about the extent of Mr Zuckerberg’s power, it is probably futile for him to expect any significant consideration. Facebook , which is not only able to track the activities of its members on their service but elsewhere, is also able to track the activities of any member who has ever been on the service and the friends and friends of its members who might not necessarily have a Facebook account. It has the capability and it actively uses it.
Data is the new oil
In America and Europe, where Mr Zuckerberg and Facebook are likely be regulated even more now, the citizens there can resort to their legal system relatively inexpensively to seek redress and protect their privacy. They can attempt to, at least. But what about Africans? 1 in 7 Africans use Facebook. Of the 170 million African Facebook users, about 12 percent of the 1.4 billion globally, 22 million are Nigerians, 16 million are South Africans, and 7 million are Kenyans. And 94 percent of Africans who use Facebook log into their accounts via their mobile devices. That number is likely to increase irrespective of whether Facebook becomes a spying monster or not. Because even as it is now public knowledge that Facebook is not so private and that in fact the data of scores of Africans were illegally acquired, there is little chance Africans would delete their Facebook accounts anytime soon. But should Facebook be regulated unduly and forced to offer its service as a paid utility, the number could reduce. And by so doing, the American legislature and others would have unwittingly stifled public opinon and freedoms in African countries; where such rights matter most. Mr Zuckerberg probably had this in mind when he said he envisages there would always be a Facebook service that is “free”; meaning funded by advertising and as it is now known, probably also the indiscriminate use of the free accountholders’ data. In this regard, African governments should probably begin to look at ways to safeguard the data of their citizens. Because even as African countries still have some way to go to catch up on new technologies like artificial intelligence, machine vision, deep learning and so on, there is one resource they can have absolute control over: the data of their citizens on the internet. The Americans certainly know its value; requiring now that visa applications must include Facebook details. Knowing as African authorities might be even worse than errant foreign data firms in terms of privacy and data protection, that may not be something Africans look forward to, though.
Prying eyes, little choice, willing minds
Actually, what facebook is doing is not particularly new. The American, Chinese and Russian governments long monitored the activity of their citizens both physically via ubiquitous surveillance cameras and on the internet. The only difference now is that a private sector player now has the power of a government. The power dynamic, favourable to Facebook at first, is likely to be increasingly less so now that its reach is now known to the legislative authorities. But would that truly be the case? Via Facebook, the American government is able to garner intelligence of almost everyone across the world with little effort and without literally spending a dime. Would any government want to lose such an advantage? And if Facebook begins to ask for money for its services, it could. This is probably why Facebook may get away with current and future infractions. In any case, many Africans would likely continue to sign away that privacy without care to enjoy a service that they literally now need in their part of the world to prove that they are alive. For the poor, the loss of privacy is a small price to pay. But as Africans become richer, as it is hoped they would be in due course, they may begin to pay more attention to the little print of the agreements they sign without care when joining these social media platforms. But if Facebook and other global tech firms would continue to monitor everyone’s internet activities whether they are users of their platforms or not, why should they even bother?
Facebook’s Zuckerberg made representations to European lawmakers in about late May 2018; a few weeks after the publication of this article by African Business. Some of them were not entirely pleased by what seemed like disrespect on his part: he left most of their questions unanswered; albeit there was also not much time for him to be pressed harder. There was certainly a marked difference in the regard Mr Zuckerberg gave the Europeans versus their American counterparts; my view. Yes, he apologised. But to what end? There is still much more that needs to change. Lately, in early June, it was revealed he may not have been entirely honest in his testimony to the US Congress: device manufacturers, Apple and Samsung, had “deep access” to Facebook’s user data, a report shows. It also recently came to light that Facebook and other global tech giants may have bent over backwards to make inroads into the Chinese market; where they are still not able to operate freely, if at all. Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer that America considers a national security threat, had access to some Facebook user data, for instance. Other examples abound. Besides, many more firms have since been found to have committed data infractions like the now defunct Cambridge Analytica did; and perhaps much worse even. That said, Facebook has since implemented several privacy safeguards. Even so, there is probably much that would always breach the gates.