There can be little doubt Facebook allowing Cambridge Analytica to get the data of 50 million people was illegal. But what if, instead, Facebook harvested the data itself to push, say, the kind of political targeted ads that Cambridge Analytica did? One ad for the rust-belt types who have lost their jobs, another for traditional Democrats, one for Hispanics, another for African-Americans …? Or, if the same was done in India for the BJP, one ad for hard-core Hindus, one for Muslim women who have benefitted from the party’s stance on triple talaq, another for those interested in economic growth, etc? Most would cry foul, arguing as they are in the Cambridge Analytica case, that their personal space has been violated, that their profiles and what they did on Facebook had been spied upon to figure out their personality type or political leanings so that specific ads could be targeted at them. The Indian government, in fact, has sent Cambridge Analytica a notice to ask whether it had harvested the data of Indians while working here, to profile citizens, to influence voting behaviour.
There are serious problems in that a Facebook or a Google or any other platform/service must clearly tell people what it plans to do with their data, and whether it will be passed on to third parties and for what—proper consent procedure has to be an integral part of India’s new privacy laws. A consent form that, for instance, will say that while a Google will not cross a line—to, say, reveal the bank account password I mailed my wife—it will scan my mail to see how to target advertisements/services to me better. That, in any case, is what the principle behind big data is—a computer will scan everyone’s information to glean trends but not isolate and highlight any individual’s data. The larger point, however, is that if people want a Facebook or a Gmail free, where did they think the money was coming from to maintain expensive servers, etc? Or did they think Facebook and Google were giant charities? Why would a Google spend so much money on developing Gmail or maps and improving it all the time if this was not going to be monetised? Advertisements, you’d say, but there are no ads on Gmail, so clearly the monetisation would have to take place in another way.
In the past, on a Facebook, say, advertisers would be happy enough just putting an advertisement as they do in newspapers or television channels, but after a while advertisers wanted more than a general blitz—why put out an ad for an expensive Ferrrari to 100 million users when just a small fraction of them are going to buy it? That’s where targeted advertisement or the Cambridge Analytica kind of thing come in. By using artificial intelligence to understand what kind of person you are based on what you post, like, etc, Facebook’s business model depends on its ability to target messages better—there are serious issues like fake news, but that is a separate issue. In the case of a Google Maps, for instance, the fact that Google knows where you are helps it give you ads or recommendations based on that—and restaurants will pay Google more for that service.
There is, of course, an option to prevent any of this data gathering, and that’s the Apple model. Apple does not use your data for any commercial purposes and, to that extent, your email on iCloud is a lot more secure from prying; privacy, to the extent of turning down an FBI request to break into a terrorist’s phone, is part of Apple’s core philosophy. But, here’s the catch, Apple charges a lot for its phone and all its services—ever downloaded an iTunes song for free? Contrast this with the hundreds of apps we download every day for some service or the other. It is not surprising the app wants access to our phone records, etc, because we are not paying for the service. Allowing Facebook to charge you $100 a year, say, and promise not to use any of your data to profile you will take care of this problem—but chances are most will opt for the free service instead, and continue to complain about infringing upon privacy!
Where things get more complicated is the issues of dominance and abuse linked to the fact that Facebook/Google are able to collect data on individuals who use their free services. If a Google knows you are in a particular neighbourhood or what your likes and dislikes are, it is better placed to service you than another company without this data. Is this abuse and should competition authorities come down on it? Since competition is the only way to deal with dominance/abuse, perhaps competition authorities should work on models that allow for portability. An important part of any e-mail service is the e-mail history, in the case of a map, it is the history of the places you have been to in the past—so to make it easy for users to move to a new service provider, competition authorities need to ensure personal data can be ported in the manner a Google Takeout allows; even today, most browsers allow you to import bookmarks and history from others. Whether this is enough is not clear, and as the European fines on Google show, the issue will continue to occupy the minds of competition authorities for a long time to come.