Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. Over two days of testimony before Congress earlier this month, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg dodged a litany of questions from lawmakers about how the data of 87 million Americans ended up in the hands of voter profiling firm Cambridge Analytica. The spectacle put a spotlight on the company's murky data-collection and sharing practices, and sparked a much-needed discussion about if and how to hold companies accountable for their handling of user data. However much deserved, Facebook has, so far, born the brunt of public scrutiny for what has unfortunately become standard practice for web platforms and services. As the Ranking Digital Rights 2018 Corporate Accountability Index--an annual ranking of the some of the world's most powerful internet, mobile, and telecommunications companies that was released this week--shows, companies across the board lack transparency about what user data they collect and share, and tell us alarmingly little about their data-sharing agreements with advertisers or other third parties.
Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook, issued a harsh rebuke of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook's business model on Wednesday, saying that detailed profiles of individuals compiled by internet platforms should not exist. "We could make a ton of money if we monetized our customers, if our customers were our product," Cook said in an interview with Recode and MSNBC that will air on 6 April. "We've elected not to do that … We're not going to traffic in your personal life. Privacy to us is a human right, a civil liberty." Cook also said that it is past time to regulate Facebook.
On the internet, the personal data users give away for free is transformed into a precious commodity. The puppy photos people upload train machines to be smarter. The questions they ask Google uncover humanity's deepest prejudices. And their location histories tell investors which stores attract the most shoppers. Even seemingly benign activities, like staying in and watching a movie, generate mountains of information, treasure to be scooped up later by businesses of all kinds. Personal data is often compared to oil--it powers today's most profitable corporations, just like fossil fuels energized those of the past. But the consumers it's extracted from often know little about how much of their information is collected, who gets to look at it, and what it's worth. Every day, hundreds of companies you may not even know exist gather facts about you, some more intimate than others.
Big US technology companies should brace themselves for "inevitable" regulation, according to Apple's chief executive, Tim Cook. Cook predicted the US would pass new laws targeting technology firms "at some point" to prevent the misuse of personal data, after a leak of Facebook user information to Cambridge Analytica that resulted in Mark Zuckerberg being hauled in front of Congress. "Generally speaking, I am not a big fan of regulation," Cook told Axios. But we have to admit when the free market is not working. And it hasn't worked here.
As Congress and the public wrestle with the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, many people are now realizing the risks data collection poses to civic institutions, public discourse and individual privacy. The U.K.-based political consulting firm didn't just collect personal data from the 270,000 people who used researcher Aleksandr Kogan's online personality quiz – nor was the damage limited to 87 million of their friends. Facebook recently revealed that nearly all of its 2.2 billion users have had data scraped by "malicious" people or companies. The firm itself has joined calls for better privacy regulations. For years, watchdogs have been warning about sharing information with data-collecting companies, firms engaged in the relatively new line of business called some academics have called "surveillance capitalism."