Relying on internet giants' goodwill to stop the spread of misinformation online and prevent the manipulation of netizens has failed, Europe's top data protection watchdog has said, adding that regulators now need to take action.
Giovanni Buttarelli, the European Data Protection Supervisor, emitted this well-timed opinion yesterday on the effects of, and antidotes to, websites microtargeting people using their intimate information.
Rather than show netizens a well-rounded, balanced view of the world, through links, ads and posts in news feeds, social networks and similar sites can feed their addicts a diet of slanted information that taps into their prejudices, fuels their fears, and manipulates their knowledge and feelings to political or commercial ends. All of this is possible using their personal and private information.
And that's just not cricket, says Buttarelli.
Here's a key quote from the watchdog's opinion statement:
A personalised, microtargeted online environment creates ‘filter-bubbles’ where people are exposed to ‘more-of-the-same’ information and encounter fewer opinions, resulting in increased political and ideological polarisation. It increases the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of false stories and conspiracies. Research suggests that the manipulation of people’s newsfeed or search results could influence their voting behaviour.
Running to 31 pages, Buttarelli's missive was not thrown together overnight in response to The Observer's weekend Cambridge Analytica bombshell. It appears to be conveniently timed, with brief references to the latest reports alongside older allegations: many politicians and newspapers seem to have forgotten that CA's data harvesting was first revealed by a Guardian investigation back in 2015.
Thanks to the weekend's revelations, though, an EU document that may have otherwise languished on some hidden website will no doubt now have a greater impact, as policymakers are already coming down hard on Facebook.
The opinion describes Facebook and its peers as gatekeepers to the internet who have gained disproportionately from the boom in digital advertising that has sucked up every Tom, Dick and Harry's personal information and fed it into all manner of data-crunching machines and algorithms.
Buttarelli argued that while the tech giants enjoyed bigger market caps than any other in recorded history, as their business models took off over the past two decades, the effect on individuals has been markedly different. For users, he said, the rise in social platforms has been a double-edged sword, as communities are more connected but increasingly divided by online manipulations and viral outrage.
Meanwhile, increased surveillance by governments and companies is having a chilling effect on people's willingness to express themselves freely, to such an extent that it risks damaging the "health of democracy." Although misinformation and manipulation are as old as humankind – particularly in political campaigning – Buttarelli said that rapid digitization had changed the nature of the issue.
In the past, political parties would have had limited amounts of data on their constituents; now there's a treasure trove of information to be gleaned from scraping social media sites.
This "extraordinary reach" of online platforms – which are bigger than TV or newspapers, and in some countries the sole entry point to the internet – "offer an easy target for people seeking to use the system for malicious ends," he said.
The ability to use technology to manipulate people and the information that they see has created the aforementioned filter bubbles, which polarize opinions, and increase the pervasiveness and persuasiveness of false stories.
Online manipulation is "a symptom of the opacity and lack of accountability in the digital ecosystem," he said, and will only get worse as more people and things are connected, and artificial intelligence further blurs the lines of accountability.
"At the root of the problem is partly the irresponsible, illegal or unethical use of personal information," Buttarelli said. Part of the solution must be data protection – "perhaps a bigger part than expected," he added.
But, he continued, no single player or sector can do this alone, and he called for regulators to work across sectors – data protection, consumer rights and anti-trust – while rigorously enforcing those rules. His formal opinion makes clear that his patience with social media companies is wearing thin.
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The text is littered with references to the underhand – perceived or otherwise – practices employed by all those who have been complicit in generating the state of affairs, which Buttarelli argued risks weakening the "social glue" that, in his view, underpins democracy. These run from dense privacy policies to product design that bakes in addictive qualities, such as auto-playing videos and constant alerts and notifications.
At the same time, he pointed the finger at others, saying that existing efforts to tackle fake news have focused too much on exposing the source of information while "neglecting the accountability of players in the ecosystem who profit from harmful behaviour".
Although he did not call for an increase in regulation per se, Buttarelli emphasised the need for stronger enforcement of the EU's imminent General Data Protection Regulation, as well as efforts to encourage the public to make better use of the increased rights it will grant them.
The same is true for the EU e-Privacy Regulation, which is currently under review by member states, and in which he wants to see a "complete and explicit" ban on tracking walls and on the practice of excluding users who have ad-blocking enabled.
"It is not enough to rely on the goodwill of ultimately unaccountable commercial players," he said. "We need now to intervene in the interests of spreading more fairly the benefits of digitisation." ®