Over the last decade or two, we have all witnessed the enormous power that data has put in the palms of big corporations. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, whether you think that anything beyond a small cooperative is to be viewed with suspicion or you worship the almighty hand of the free market and you’re all in on laissez-faire capitalism, we can all agree that Facebook should not have anywhere near as much power as it currently does.
But the question of how to combat Facebook’s power when people seem happy and willing to hand it unlimited power is more complicated and does divide people along political lines. One solution that is politically neutral and which benefits us all would be to give ourselves, the people, access to data on the same terms.
Data misuse has begun to affect western politics in such a way that voting is turning into a secondary concern, where the primary concern is a marketing exercise that borderlines on psychological warfare. Why win votes with nuanced arguments when you can pay to manipulate people through social media? People aren’t generally so easily swayed that you can turn their opinion with a single ad or marketing campaign. However, a sophisticated and sustained campaign, one which often masquerades as something else, can impact the sturdiest and most intelligent of minds. Such is the power of data.
That is why oversight and watchdogs with big, mean fangs are necessary. Making public data open has the same effect as making computer code open source – it can be audited by anyone. This removes trust from the equation and enables anyone to verify anything that they choose to ensure that it is legitimate.
Shortly after becoming Prime Minister of the UK by accident, Boris Johnson was weighing up the benefits of calling an election. Under UK law, Boris Johnson needed the support of two-thirds of the UK’s MPs to call an early election. While weighing up this decision, his Conservative party was conducting some polling that may well have violated UK electoral law.
Cummings And Goings
Boris Johnson is not very tech-savvy. This is also, somehow, one of his best qualities. There is a timeline somewhere where Boris Johnson is also spouting nonsense into the Twittersphere. But in our timeline, Boris Johnson has his own data goblin – Dominic Cummings. September 2019, the UK was headed straight for the October 31st deadline for crashing out of the EU without a deal.
During this time, there was a rush of people heading to gov.uk websites looking for various pieces of advice, trying to find information that was often not there or remained unknown. As you can imagine, this inevitably resulted in people frantically clicking around, with more people coming to the website and interacting with it more when they were there.
A memo obtained by Buzzfeed news (They do some good journalism, we promise), allegedly from Dominic Cummings himself, told government departments to share any and all data about their gov.uk websites as a “top priority”. The Information Commissioner’s Office, the UK’s data watchdog, launched an investigation into the government as a result of the reporting
Let’s say goodbye to the UK, though. Australia’s privacy watchdog has also had a tussle with Facebook, taking the social media titan to court for their role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal…hello again, UK.
The Information Commissioner of Australia, Angelene Frank, told a court that more than 300,000 Australians had their data leaked to the British firm before its rapid demise once the nature of their operations became clear.
Ensuring that the public has access to data is important and the benefits of sharing data should not be resisted. The best way of ensuring that data is not misused is to encourage as much of it to be public as possible and to ensure that watchdogs are backed by proper legislation. If the watchdog can’t bite, it won’t work.