Stronger data laws needed to protect democracies, say experts

Issue a matter of national security, journalist tells global panel that includes S'pore MPs

Tech companies build a "voodoo doll" profile from the data they collect, a digital representation of their users they can use to "micro-target" individuals with advertisements.
Tech companies build a "voodoo doll" profile from the data they collect, a digital representation of their users they can use to "micro-target" individuals with advertisements.PHOTO: AFP

Governments around the world must take action against the extraction and monetisation of personal data by tech giants such as Facebook and Google.

Failing to do so will have serious consequences for democratic societies, experts warned an international panel of lawmakers from eight countries in Dublin yesterday.

The MPs from Australia, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Ireland, Singapore, Britain and the United States were at a hearing of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation and Fake News.

British journalist Carole Cadwalladr from The Observer, who last year exposed the data scandal involving Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, told the panel: "Nobody can be in any doubt about the risks to our democracy which are posed by these Silicon Valley tech platforms.

"The vast unchecked power of the Silicon Valley technology companies represents a truly global risk. And it is not even clear, I think, that democracy will survive them," she said, urging the panel to treat the issue as a matter of national security.

"We are in a truly staggering situation where a single company plays an absolutely central and pivotal role in elections in almost every single country across the world, and yet it is answerable to none of them."

Other speakers highlighted specific aspects of the tech giants' practices as areas which lawmakers should pay greater attention to.

Dr Karlin Lillington from The Irish Times said at the core of the issue is the "surveillance capitalism" business model that tech giants rely on, based on extracting and monetising the personal data of users while encouraging users to engage addictively with their platforms.

"This is a vicious but highly lucrative cycle, in which the clickbait material of hate, of outrage, of conspiracy, of tribalism, proves the most engaging," she said.

 
 
 
 

Mr Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist and former adviser to Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, agreed. He said the success of these Internet platforms is driven by algorithms that can have the effect of amplifying hate speech and disinformation.

Tech companies build a "voodoo doll" profile from the data they collect, a digital representation of their users they can use to "micro-target" individuals with advertisements.

The best way to combat this is to declare personal data privacy a human right, not an asset that can be traded, Mr McNamee said.

This would limit business only to directly intended uses of data, not third-party commercial uses such as web tracking and predictive models of users' behaviour.

Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Home Affairs and Health Amrin Amin, who was in Dublin for the hearing, asked Mr McNamee if he would advocate for governments to have powers to intervene swiftly and prevent harm, and curb the spread of disinformation, like being able to require corrections.

Mr McNamee said attacking the symptoms alone is not an effective approach. Companies will migrate away from current business models like advertising to other models that could be even more harmful. He cited Facebook's Libra cryptocurrency as an example.

Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Transport, and Communications and Information, who was also at the hearing, asked how governments could hold tech companies accountable when there is no global set of standards that can be applied.

In response, Dr Lillington pointed to the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation, which protects the personal data and privacy of EU citizens, as a standard other countries could look to.

Mr Zuckerberg was absent from the hearing. Facebook's head of global policy management Monika Bickert fielded questions from the panel on the company's policies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2019, with the headline 'Stronger data laws needed to protect democracies, say experts'. Subscribe