Dare we say it…no; wait, I am going to say it. GTconsult predicted that Facebook was a ticking time bomb when it came to privacy issues.

Facebook is now incurring the wrath of the UK government over non-compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). How the mighty have fallen.

Essential protection.

We live in a shared economy where social media has made it possible for information to be shared (within the personal and business context) across vast spaces in real time.

The driving force behind the success of the shared economy is big data and the ability to interpret this data. In an effort to protect the public from wanton thieves who can access vital information at the click of a button, many countries in the world have released data privacy laws to prevent anarchy.

The GDPR is one such law. According to privacytrust.com, the purpose of the GDPR is to provide a set of standardized data protection laws across all the member countries of the European Union (EU). This should make it easier for EU citizens to understand how their data is being used, and also raise any complaints, even if they are not in the country where its located.

Blatant disregard.

According to an article on firstpost.com, Facebook recently intentionally and knowingly contravened GDPR laws.

The article points out that legal and political woes are only mounting higher for Facebook. A 110-page report by British lawmakers has accused the social media giant of violating its data privacy and anti-competition laws. The UK lawmakers believe that Facebook was ‘intentionally and knowingly’ violating these laws and even went to the extent of calling Facebook’s actions as akin to that of a ‘digital gangster’.

The report concludes five main suggestions:

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is in contempt of UK parliament in refusing three separate demands for him to present evidence. Instead, in all three instances, he sent junior employees to address these meetings, who were unable to answer the committee’s questions.
  • “We need new independent regulations with tough powers and sanctions regime to curb the worst excesses of surveillance capitalism and the forces trying to use technology to subvert our democracy”.
  • Tech companies functioning in the UK should be taxed in order to help fund the work for the Information Commissioner’s Office and a new regulator set up to oversee them.
  • UK regulator should have special powers to launch legal action if companies breach any law.
  • UK’s existing electoral regulations are “hopelessly out of date for the internet age” and need urgent reform.

The article adds that the British members of Parliament also suggested that the country needs dedicated laws to govern Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants. The UK lawmakers believe that Facebook behaves like a ‘digital gangster’ of the online world, and considers itself above and beyond any law.

Content removal.

The article points out that lawmakers have also requested that social media companies remove “harmful” or “illegal” content on their platforms and be held liable for it. It was also agreed upon that self-regulation by social media companies was clearly not working.

According to The Guardian report, the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins says that platforms like Facebook are threatening UK’s Democracy via the “malicious and relentless targeting” of the users in the country with disinformation and “personalized dark adverts” from sources that are unidentifiable.

The report also noted that disinformation was not just spread on Facebook but also on platforms such as Twitter.

The article adds that Facebook has also responded to this report. According to BBC, Facebook says, “We share the Committee’s concerns about false news and election integrity and are pleased to have made a significant contribution to their investigation over the past 18 months, answering more than 700 questions and with four of our most senior executives giving evidence.”

It added, “We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform. But we’re not waiting. We have already made substantial changes so that every political ad on Facebook has to be authorised, state who is paying for it and then is stored in a searchable archive for seven years. No other channel for political advertising is as transparent and offers the tools that we do.”

The research on this report started two years ago in 2017 when concern about Facebook’s role in the spread of false information was growing. However, this inquiry was reportedly turbo-charged in March 2018 when the Cambridge Analytica data-harvesting scandal was discovered.

Tougher regulation.

This scandal came as a surprise to the UK and the fact that Facebook is knowingly flaunting these laws has caused many to say that Facebook simply cannot govern itself.

For the last 18 months, UK lawmakers have investigated Facebook, and it’s recommended they and other social media giants be regulated.

The article points out that a damning report released on Monday said after years of self-regulation, these companies were unable to protect users data and privacy, or from disinformation.

The UK parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) final report recommended an independent regulator be set up (like UK’s Ofcom or the FCC), and a compulsory code of ethics for social media companies.

The article adds that the regulator should have legal powers, such as the ability to fine these companies if they fail to act on harmful or illegal content on their platforms, a responsibility they have long shied away from.

“Social media companies cannot hide behind the claim of being merely a ‘platform’ and maintain that they have no responsibility themselves in regulating the content of their sites,” the report reads.

Political regulation.

The committee also recommended electoral laws be overhauled, so that it’s clear who is paying for political campaigns on digital platforms.

The article points out that transparency on political advertising is something which Facebook has been working on, but it’s far from perfect, as evidenced by an openDemocracy investigation on the mysterious money funding pro-Brexit campaigns.

The committee also criticised Facebook for its data sharing practices, where it gave deeper access to users’ data for partners who had special deals with Facebook, overriding user privacy settings.

“From the Six4Three case documents, it is clear that spending substantial sums with Facebook, as a condition of maintaining preferential access to personal data, was part and parcel of the company’s strategy of platform development as it embraced the mobile advertising world. And that this approach was driven from the highest level,” the report reads.

The article adds that they were also unhappy with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, accusing him of “showing contempt” to the committee, after he failed to show up to a hearing of international lawmakers last November.

“Even if Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t believe he is accountable to the UK Parliament, he is to the billions of Facebook users across the world,” DCMS chair, Damian Collins MP, said in a statement online.

“Evidence uncovered by my Committee shows he still has questions to answer yet he’s continued to duck them, refusing to respond to our invitations directly or sending representatives who don’t have the right information.”

Fake news.

In a statement to Mashable via email, Facebook’s UK public policy manager Karim Palant said the company shared the committee’s “concerns about false news and election integrity,” and is pleased to have made a “significant contribution” to the committee.

“We are open to meaningful regulation and support the committee’s recommendation for electoral law reform … We also support effective privacy legislation that holds companies to high standards in their use of data and transparency for users,” the statement read.

The article pointed out that Palant said while Facebook still has more to do, the social media giant was not the same company it was a year ago.

He said the company has tripled the size of the team working on detecting bad content, as well as investing in machine learning and artificial intelligence to detect abuse.

The article added that the DCMS report comes after a Washington Post report last week, which said Facebook is set to face a multibillion-dollar fine from the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations. It seems in the U.S., and now the UK, sorry just won’t cut it anymore.

“These are issues that the major tech companies are well aware of, yet continually fail to address,” Collins said.

“The guiding principle of the ‘move fast and break things’ culture often seems to be that it is better to apologise than ask permission.”

Setting a record.

And its not just in the UK that Facebook is in trouble. The social network might be setting a new world record soon but not in a very good way.

Reports indicate that it is negotiating with the US Federal Trade Commission over what could be the largest fine ever levied on a technology company, breaking Google’s $22.5 million in 2012. But while the still non-final multi-billion dollar penalty is seen as a “day of reckoning” for the social network giant, it will take more than just monetary fines to make Facebook change its ways.

The article points out that that’s not to belittle the impact such a large fine would have. The company will definitely take a financial hit but it has more than enough to make up for the loss. While a loss in the US could just be the start of Facebook’s woes in other regions, especially in Europe, at the end of the day, Facebook will be able to recoup its losses if it survives. And it definitely will.

This is all presuming that multi-billion dollar fine will even be the final figure. Of course, Facebook is fighting tooth and nail to have reduced penalties and negotiate the FTC’s demands. If the two can’t settle on something they both agree on, you can pretty much look forward to one of the highest-profile court cases involving a tech company.

A good start.

The article adds that it’s a good start, sure, and it sends a strong message that not even giants like Google and Facebook can escape the long arm of the law, eventually. But Facebook as been fined before and it has been dragged into scandals before. Each and every time, it promises to do better. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, and when it does – only until people start forgetting. In all the changes that Facebook has implemented in response to complaints, lawsuits, and issues, the one thing that hasn’t changed is its culture and mindset about privacy.

It’s almost as if Facebook never outgrew its origins. And while some institutions would be proud of staying faithful to their original spirit, this is one instance where that could become a liability. Facebook was originally intended as a Harvard social networking service, eventually growing to connect students from other colleges and universities as well. It flourished under a young market and its youthful spirit also changed the face of Silicon Valley forever. However, it also brought along some of the traits associated with Gen X and later, like taking privacy for granted.

The article points out that we have grown up in an age where we can easily sign away our privacy and other rights with a checkbox, a click, or a tap. We have become numb to terms of service agreements, precisely because those were crafted to numb all but the most trained brains. We simply assume that companies are just taking the minimum of what they need to improve their services and never provide that data to third-parties as they promised. How very wrong we were.

When you mix that general disregard for privacy with the business acumen to see how such data could be effectively used to grow the business, you get Facebook. Right from its controversial beginnings, the company, its founders, and its leaders proved they had the skill and the will to get around any legal hurdle. Or, better yet, get away with what they can.

The article adds that Facebook naturally denies it and, to be fair, we can’t rely on hearsay all the time. What makes insider testimonies so believable, however, is how the company’s actions confirm those “conspiracy theories”. Those theories include how Facebook, time and again, has opted to err on the side of business growth even when they know how controversial the feature would be. If people got wind of it, that is. Which is also why they tend to keep the lid shut tight.

The problem with Facebook right now isn’t just that it has repeatedly violated users’ privacy or even broken agreements. The problem is that it is living and growing a culture that espouses and even rewards such behavior. Anything short of the company going bankrupt will drastically change it. And, let’s face it, it’s not going to happen.

The article points out that Facebook has become so ingrained in our modern society that it will never be without users who probably couldn’t care less about the company scandals than about being able to see their grandchildren’s photos. And as long as there are users, Facebook will always find ways to turn them into profitable users. So, no, a multi-billion fine will be just like a spanking. It’s going to hurt for a while, but it probably won’t change anything long-term.