Sunday 15 April 2018

It's not just America: Mark Zuckerberg has to answer for Facebook's actions around world

By Karen Attiah, Published The Straits Times, 13 Apr 2018

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is in the hot seat in Washington. The social media platform now admits that the data of up to 87 million profiles may have been improperly used by data firm Cambridge Analytica. US lawmakers are demanding answers - and rightfully so.

But while Facebook is facing the most heat in the United States, it is a multinational corporation and, some would argue, a sort of nation-state unto itself.

In many countries around the world, Facebook is the Internet. And with little ability to influence how the social media site operates, such nations are vulnerable to any policy action - or inaction - the company decides to take.

So while Mr Zuckerberg struggles to answer for how his company is affecting Americans, let's not forget that he has a lot more to answer for.


Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal is truly global in scope, with countries in almost every continent affected by the data breach.

In Britain, law enforcement officials raided the offices of Cambridge Analytica and have opened an investigation into Facebook after news of the leak broke. Former Cambridge Analytica data scientist and whistle-blower Christopher Wylie testified before British lawmakers last month (Mr Zuckerberg declined a request to appear before Parliament). Mr Wylie alleged the social data Cambridge Analytica improperly collected was used by the Vote Leave campaign during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Lawyers from Britain and the United States have now filed a class action lawsuit against Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, arguing that the data breach "effectively abused the human right to privacy" and "undermined the democratic process".

But the damage is also palpable in developing democracies, where ethnic tensions remain some of the most potent political issues. In India, where Cambridge Analytica may have improperly accessed the data of over half a million Facebook users, politicians from both of the major parties have accused the other side of using the data for campaign purposes.

In Kenya, people were outraged after former Cambridge Analytica chief executive Alexander Nix admitted in an undercover video that the firm handled "just about every element" of Mr Uhuru Kenyatta's presidential campaign in 2013 and again last year. Social media has become a potent political force in the East African nation, with campaign ads using ethnically divisive rhetoric.

Meanwhile, Nigeria's government is investigating Facebook and Cambridge Analytica after it emerged that the data firm worked on behalf of former president Goodluck Jonathan in 2007 and 2015 to spread graphic videos painting then candidate Muhammadu Buhari as an Islamic fundamentalist. Mr Garba Shehu, Nigeria's presidential spokesman, said the government is looking into allegations that the firm was behind organising rallies to dissuade Nigerians from turning out to vote for now President Buhari.


It's not just that Facebook has undermined democracy. It's also allegedly served as a tool for authoritarians.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has turned Facebook into a weapon. The President, who has come under international condemnation for human rights abuses, ran a political campaign that spread false information. Pro-Duterte pages used Facebook to smear political opponents and, in some cases, send death threats.

And in Myanmar, Facebook is the dominant way most people in the country access the Internet, boasting some 30 million users. As such, human rights groups say it's been a powerful weapon to spread hate speech in the country's ongoing ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims.

Last year, some 6,700 Rohingya were killed in Rakine state and some 670,000 have been forced to flee their homes. The United Nations has said that Facebook played a "determining role" in violence against the ethnic group. An ultranationalist Buddhist monk named Ashin Wirathu used Facebook to post anti-Rohingya messages and spread false information. Members of Myanmar's government have also posted false images claiming to show Rohingya burning their own villages.

In an interview last week, Mr Zuckerberg defended his company's response to the conflict in Myanmar, noting that it has blocked messages that incite harm.

But these examples nevertheless highlight a difficult question for the company: What does it do when authoritarian governments, particularly in lesser developed countries, are the bad actors?


Last year, Facebook introduced its "explore feed" in six small countries: Cambodia, Serbia, Slovakia, Bolivia, Sri Lanka and Guatemala.

The feature tweaked the site's algorithms to make posts from friends and family more prominent on the default news feed and required users to click to another page in order to see posts from news sites or other official pages.

The result? In several of the countries, news organisations that relied heavily on Facebook to reach audiences saw dramatic declines in their traffic. In Bolivia, one major newspaper, Los Tiempos, saw its traffic decline between 30 per cent and 60 per cent. In Serbia, the editor of an investigative news site said the change signalled that Facebook was on the verge of "ruining us". And some non-governmental organisations in Cambodia saw traffic drop as much as 60 per cent due to the news feed change.

Meanwhile, in Slovakia, analysts said that the changes led to a rise in fake news and misinformation. In Cambodia, crackdowns on the media already have reduced the availability of independent information. Facebook's explore feed served to compound the problem.

Last month, Facebook said it would end the explore feed feature, but the episode demonstrated just how much power the company's algorithms has over the free flow of information. In a world now dominated by digital media, that should be disconcerting.


Some countries have already taken steps to minimise Facebook's effect on their societies. Sri Lanka, for example, outright banned the social media site, as well as its subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Others are trying to regulate it. Consider Germany, where the Cambridge Analytica breach potentially affected more than 300,000 people. Facebook was already politically unpopular among Germans, many of whom believe that the company helped deliver the far-right Alternative for Germany party's best performance in an election last year. Their ire towards the social media giant helped fuel passage of Germany's "network enforcement law", which allows the government to fine online companies such as Facebook for leaving "manifestly unlawful" posts online for more than 24 hours. That includes incitement to hatred, incitement to crime and the spread of symbols that the government has deemed unconstitutional.

But it's not clear this is an effective approach. Even beyond the complaints that Germany has stifled free speech, sites like Facebook have not been able to expunge unlawful content as prescribed by the government. One government study found that while Facebook has been able to get rid of hate speech, only 39 per cent of it was removed within 24 hours. Other sites like Twitter met the 24-hour deadline only in 1 per cent of cases.

At the same time, the power to regulate hate speech can take a dark turn if put in the wrong hands. Israel, for example, is working to identify and remove inciting content on Facebook, but those efforts so far seem to have targeted incitements from Palestinians while letting Israeli incitements flourish.

Time will tell if countries outside of the United States will ever be able to compel Mr Zuckerberg to appear before their citizens and lawmakers to answer for Facebook's actions. He may never appear in say, Germany, India or Nigeria on his whirlwind apology tour. Nevertheless, he should not be absolved from the global consequences of the digital empire that he has built.


Facebook faces up to privacy issues
Social media giant in spotlight as data scandal sparks concerns over sharing of information
By Lester Hio, The Sunday Times, 15 Apr 2018

Mr Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief, tech billionaire and social media mogul, likes his privacy as much as the next person.

For instance, he would not want the entire world to know the name of the hotel he was staying at while in Washington, DC to testify before committees of the Senate and the House last week.

Illinois state senator Dick Durbin had asked: "Mr Zuckerberg, would you be comfortable sharing with us the name of the hotel you stayed at last night?" A pause, rapid-fire blinks from Mr Zuckerberg, then "Um", some nervous laughter, a long "Uh…" and finally an emphatic: "No."

Clearly, privacy still matters. That exchange was the culmination of a month-long data privacy scandal that has plagued Facebook: Users should not have their private data shared without their consent and Facebook has a responsibility to keep that data safe.

The social media firm is dealing with its biggest scandal to date, coming under global scrutiny for not doing enough to protect user data after reports last month that 87 million user accounts have had their private information shared with third-party firms.

The saga has drawn attention to the power that the world's largest social media network has over its users - all 2.2 billion of them - and how it is profiting from it.


It all started on March 17, when British newspaper The Observer and The New York Times ran an expose on Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm with ties to Mr Donald Trump's election campaign, and how it had gained unauthorised access to the personal information of millions of Facebook users.

The earliest reports said the London-based Cambridge Analytica had improperly obtained the personal information of more than 50 million Facebook users without their consent or knowledge - a figure which was later officially revised to 87 million accounts.

The majority of the accounts were in the United States, followed by Britain, the Philippines and Indonesia. In Singapore, more than 65,000 accounts were affected, out of four million user accounts.

The breach goes back to 2014, when Cambridge University academic and data scientist Aleksandr Kogan started gathering data, ostensibly for academic research, through an online personality test.

Dr Kogan got about 270,000 Facebook users to download an app called "thisisyourdigitallife" to access the test. They then also consented to having their data harvested for research purposes.

But the app exploited a loophole in Facebook's platform, which had then allowed such apps to ask for and record information of a user's friends without getting their direct consent. This let Kogan's company, Global Science Research (GSR), get data of more than 80 million users, which was later sold to Cambridge Analytica, violating Facebook's terms of use on personal data.

Facebook banned the app in 2015 and demanded that GSR delete all data. But it was too late - Cambridge Analytica was farming data for its own purposes, including building profiles of users to send them targeted ads and content designed to sway their political inclinations during the 2016 US presidential election.


The backlash against Facebook was swift and furious. A #deleteFacebook movement started on rival social media service Twitter.

Prominent names, such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, have taken up the call and exited Facebook. Companies, like electric carmaker Tesla and audio firm Sonos, have also withdrawn their support and their pages.

The US Federal Trade Commission launched an investigation into whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree with the agency on data privacy, while the British Information Commissioner's Office raided Cambridge Analytica's London office last month.

Last week, Mr Zuckerberg appeared before two separate hearings: Senate committees on Tuesday and the US House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, testifying for more than 10 hours in total.

The 33-year-old chief executive was repeatedly pressed on whether Facebook did enough to protect user data; the extent of Russian manipulation to influence US elections and elsewhere; and if the company was ready to commit to regulatory oversight in the future.

Mr Zuckerberg acknowledged Facebook had not done enough to protect private user data. But he also defended its opt-in provisions, which left it to users to decide what data they wished to share.


In Singapore, Facebook first made its presence felt in 2006. After a slow start as it tried to unseat then-dominant Friendster, Facebook became the social media platform of choice for students, professionals and politicians. Younger Members of Parliament were among the first politicians to adopt Facebook. Then Cabinet ministers set up accounts. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong now has one of Singapore's most popular pages with 1.2 million likes.

Facebook's Asia-Pacific headquarters is based in its sprawling offices in South Beach Tower.

But even as its worldwide popularity grew, so did concerns over privacy. For instance, in 2007, it faced a class action lawsuit in the US after it launched a program that would automatically post information about users from third-party sites on their News Feed without consent. Facebook paid US$9.5 million to settle the suit.

But after some initial public blowback, Facebook would emerge unscathed from these troubles.


The spotlight is now on the responsibility big Internet and social media firms like Facebook have in ensuring their wealth of personal data is kept free from abuse.

Some form of regulation of Internet firms seems inevitable. US lawmakers have started calling for tighter regulation, making reference to legislation like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will be passed in Europe next month. For its European users, Facebook is complying with the GDPR standard, which includes laws that enable consumers to request that a company deletes all their personal data from its servers, and that companies have to report a data breach within 72 hours of discovering it.

Some of the rules will be extended to US and other users later, said Mr Zuckerberg. He said it was "inevitable that there will need to be some regulation" for firms like Facebook, but avoided going into specifics.

The possibility of a paid-for, ad-free version of Facebook also surfaced during his testimony.

Investors appeared confident in Mr Zuckerberg's performance during his testimony, as Facebook shares rose almost 5 per cent back to US$166.32 - the value before the scandal came to light last month - netting him US$3 billion (S$3.9 billion).

Most Facebook users do not appear to be perturbed enough by the incident to leave the platform.

An informal poll of 20 people here found that the scandal had not put them off from Facebook.

Student Tai Shu Fen, 19, said: "However, I would definitely be warier in putting myself out (there) online, especially for surveys and forms that trawl for personal information, no matter how secure and trustworthy they seem to be."

Ms Eying Wee, head of marketing for Asia-Pacific and Japan at cyber security firm Check Point, said the company has not seen a significant drop in Facebook's user base.

"Facebook has been an essential part of many people's lives, to keep updated on their friends and family," she said. "The incident has caused many to question privacy issues on social networking sites but I think most people would prioritise the convenience over cyber security."

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