Blue State Digital’s Samir Patel: why the whole world needs proper regulation for Facebook and its rivals

It’s been a hellish few weeks for Facebook. Earlier this month, just 24 hours after announcing its pivot to a more privacy-focused platform in an attempt to reassure an increasingly concerned user base, it was revealed that Facebook’s single biggest known British political advertiser is the controversial pro-Brexit group Britain’s Future. With £340,000 spent on Facebook ads backing a hard Brexit and no way to trace where the money is coming from, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement for transparency.

This is the wild west. While Facebook is scrambling to reassure users and advertisers on one hand, on the other it’s refusing to give simple answers to government about its practices. It’s essentially acting as if it is above the law. For a platform that is supposed to be about people, this is unacceptable.

We have never had a communications channel like this before – that is to say, one that is completely unregulated. Before, we could always find out who was advertising and where the money came from. But Facebook is outside of regulation. Last autumn, there were claims that the system would now be more transparent, but the Britain’s Future example shows that this was a baby step at best. It’s still possible not to know who’s really holding the purse strings.

The merging of the Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services is going to create an even more closed environment, where content can be completely hidden. This ties in to other issues, too – with Facebook struggling to remove the content from the New Zealand terror attack this week (1.5 million videos were removed in the first 24 hours alone), it’s not just political advertising that will be harder to monitor, but extreme content of all types. Despite Facebook’s claims of transparency, it’s continuing to create an ever more closed, hard to regulate environment.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web, and this has reminded many people of the original intentions of the internet – openness, connectivity, positive change – at a time when we’re seeing the worst of what the web can do.

Transparency is vital – and the more closed the web becomes (and it’s worth remembering that, in some countries, Facebook is the internet for many people), the more limited its potential. Founder of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee is calling for a ‘contract for the web’ which would protect a safe, accessible internet for the public good. This would ensure some balance – but more than this, we need government regulation.

Governments around the world seem in thrall to companies like Facebook. Facebook is a for-profit company that’s making money – and that needs regulation. A government’s job is to protect its people by putting in standards. It’s happened previously with tobacco, drugs and more – but, for some reason, lawmakers all over the world are blinded by technology. The issue is being framed as merely one of individual choice and responsibility. And our laws are woefully out of date – so any wrongdoing remains hard to prosecute.

A large part of what’s behind this is a lack of understanding from those in power – but recognising that gap in knowledge and working with independent partners can help. Social media and tech giants need to be treated like any other industry that, left unchecked, has the potential to cause harm.

It’s worth remembering that historically, we are in the very early days of the internet and online technology. Cars were invented in 1885 – but the driving test only came to the UK in 1934. Seatbelts weren’t standard until 1958. The internet is in its infancy – and we’re never had a tech company grow as fast and as all-encompassing as Facebook has. And because of that, we could still have someone come in and overtake them. But whichever companies grow to this size and influence, regulation must always play a part.

The more our elections are hacked and our democracy is stolen, the more this will become inevitable – through the will of governments and the platforms (though the platforms continue to resist legislation. But right now, and despite everything that happened with the Brexit referendum, Trump and more – nothing has changed. If we had an election tomorrow, there is nothing to prevent a repeat of what happened before – untraceable spending, fake news, improper use of data and more – other than slightly higher fines under GDPR. But then again, if you still don’t know who’s advertising, who do you fine?

Samir Patel is chief innovation strategist, Blue State Digital.

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