Who should move Facebook’s cheese?

March 5, 2019: A roundup of news and perspective on disruptive technology. In this issue: Facebook, 5G, and Raghuram Rajan’s ‘The Third Pillar’

N S Ramnath

[By Stock Catalog, under Creative Commons]

Privacy: Whose responsibility is it?

Facebook has been posting more bad news on its timeline.

Some users discovered that Facebook pestered them to provide their phone numbers for security (two factor authentication), but has been using them for targeting ads. Besides, Facebook doesn’t protect these numbers well enough, and users can’t opt out. It’s no accident. Privacy is simply not in its DNA, it would seem. New leaked documents revealed that the tech giant has been getting politicians to lobby against Facebook-unfriendly data privacy legislations—threatening to withhold investments if they don’t comply. (Facebook said it didn’t).

Traditional checks and balances don’t always work.

Even a couple of years ago, many privacy advocates in India used to defend Facebook saying it’s “voluntary” and that its users gave their “informed consent”. But, such ideas lose their meaning in the complexities of user agreements, inaccessibility of the technology black boxes, and closed door lobbying. As Brian X Chen observed last year, “You can quit Facebook if you simply find no joy in it. But if you’re looking to leave for philosophical reasons concerning privacy, it’s a futile effort.”

The fight is not about user time, but user mind.

For years, even the hardnosed descriptions of Facebook were around time and data. Facebook wants your data, and therefore wants you to spend more time on it. When users spent more time on their mobiles, the company’s focus shifted from web to mobile. However, the primary description of Facebook should be about how it impacts users’ minds, and how it changes users’ behaviour. One recent study divided users into four categories—relationship builders, window shoppers, town criers, and selfies—and said the experience was different for each group. Another study looked at people who left Facebook for four weeks, and found it had huge social and psychological benefits.

Facebook is just the first step

Studies that explore the dynamics between society and Facebook also throw light on the dynamics between society and technology at large. They don’t reveal the entire landscape. But they still point to where the risks are. Take DNA testing. It is not only getting better, it is now possible to distinguish between the DNA of close family members—a boon for forensics. It is also expanding to new territories—such as dead people’s DNA—raising ethical questions. Now consider 5G, which demands more cellphone towers work, which in turn enables cellphone companies to know your precise location. Just imagine, says Columbia University professor Steve Bellovin, talking to The Wall Street Journal, “a divorce lawyer wanting to track the other spouse. Imagine your boss doing it to see if you’re going to the doctor’s or you’re actually going to the baseball game or a competitor’s office. We need much clearer regulation of what carriers can do with location data.”

All these essentially shifts the burden to the society.

That’s pretty much the conclusion of Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, in her Fast Company piece: “Then let’s develop the laws, regulatory framework, and new forms of collective action that will interrupt and outlaw these behavioural extraction and modification operations. The internet and the wider realm of digital technologies can be harnessed differently. This work begins with us.”

Technology and the third pillar

Centralised solutions don’t work

In his recent column, Raghuram Rajan argues that grand policies—favoured by both the left and right, with one side favouring post-market initiatives and the other favouring pre-market initiatives—are inadequate for the current times. “Capital cities are often too remote from local concerns, and too paralyzed by infighting, to take the lead. What is needed are local solutions, implemented with community knowledge and engagement, and supported by national governments with funding and light oversight where necessary. If such measures can improve pre-market preparation for people in struggling communities, augmenting the post-market safety net will become less necessary and more affordable.”

The column reflects the arguments he made in his latest book, The Third Pillar. After passing off a collection of speeches as a book last year, Raghuram Rajan more than compensates by taking on a weighty and all important subject: The “third pillar” of the title refers to the community, a subject that’s often ignored by economists. (That comes under the purview of sociology. And it is tough. Economist Jagdish Bhagwati used to joke, “If you are a good economist, the virtuous economist, you are reborn as a physicist. But if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.”)

This presentation gives a good overview:

Building technology as if communities matter

I have never heard any business leader speak more about communities than Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Often, business leaders build technologies as if communities matter to technology, and not as if technology matters to community. Who should own such platforms is a good place to start finding a better way. In his book, Raghuram Rajan provides an example.  

“Another important source of power that e-platforms or social media have is their ownership of the network. If an individual leaves a network, her access to it, and to the many relationships she has built on it, are cut off. This causes many to stay on even if they dislike the network and its services. In other words, as the size of the network grows, the degree to which people are attached also grows (since more of their relationships are on it), and the more value is extracted by the network.

“Some countries deal with this problem by placing the ownership of the network in the public domain. For instance, in India, electronic retail payments are made over a bridge called the Unified Payments Interface (UPI), which has been developed by a corporation owned by all the banks. An individual with an account in a bank or platform like Google, WhatsApp, or Alipay, can make payments over the bridge to anyone who has an account in any other bank or company. No entity owns the network, but all benefit from it…

“The objective in all this is not to eliminate the profitability of innovation, but to reduce the economic power corporations and platforms acquire through intellectual property, data, and network externalities that tie users in. By redefining ownership of intellectual property and the data, and shifting more of the latter into the hand of the users who create it, as well as by requiring networks be interoperable, power will be rebalanced.”

As technology gets more deeply entrenched into our lives, the old questions about who (state, business, society) owns what (technology, platforms, data, etc) get more and more important. It is important for the society as a whole, yet, the discussions are dominated by lawyers and to some extent technologists. There is a need for economists, sociologists, philosophers, psychologists and politicians to jump into the fray. If there is one place that is crying for diversity, it’s this.

About the author

N S Ramnath
N S Ramnath

Senior Writer

Founding Fuel

NS Ramnath is a senior writer and part of the core team at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book, The Aadhaar Effect. His main interests lie in technology, business, society, and how they interact and influence each other. He writes a regular column on disruptive technologies, and takes regular stock of key news and perspectives from across the world. 

Ram, as everybody calls him, experiments with newer story-telling formats, tailored for the smartphone and social media as well, the outcomes of which he shares with everybody on the team. It then becomes part of a knowledge repository at Founding Fuel and is continuously used to implement and experiment with content formats across all platforms. 

He is also involved with data analysis and visualisation at a startup, How India Lives.

Prior to Founding Fuel, Ramnath was with Forbes India and Economic Times as a business journalist. He has also written for The Hindu, Quartz and Scroll. He has degrees in economics and financial management from Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning.

He tweets at @rmnth and spends his spare time reading on philosophy.