The controversy surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s use of private data collected in a possibly unlawful manner on Facebook hit home last week with the news that over 620,000 Canadians were among the millions whose data was improperly shared. A consulting firm specializing in the “micro-targeting” of members of the population with particular profiles using ads on social media, Cambridge Analytica is thought to have contributed to the victories of Donald Trump and of Brexit. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified recently before the American Congress this week about the scandal.
Serious though this issue is, there has been no shortage of hysterical rhetoric on this file in recent days. For instance, Sven Giegold, who is the European Parliament’s rapporteur for transparency, accountability and integrity in the EU institutions, called the scandal “a stab in the heart of democracy” that affects “the legitimacy of democratic elections and referenda.”
In Canada, Conservative MP Peter Kent, a member of the House Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, said he wanted to focus on the “threat to the democratic process” revealed by these events. Liberal cabinet minister Scott Brison, the interim democratic institutions minister, has also spoken of the need “to defend the integrity of our electoral system” in the context of this story.
Those who are aware of my positions on the importance of individual freedom can probably guess that the protection of privacy is dear to my heart. But some things need to be put in perspective.
Gathering personal information about voters while canvassing, including addresses and phone numbers, and targeting those who may support you in order to “get out the vote,” also known as “GOTV,” is, strictly speaking, nothing new. It is a technique that has been practised for decades by all political parties, though it used to be done in person with pencil and paper.
The fact that GOTV, or micro-targeted advertising, can be done today with applications and computer databases on a large scale does not change the nature of the phenomenon. Computers and the internet greatly expand what can be done today, in this area and in every other one.
Influencing voter behaviour
My fear is that under the pretext of protecting privacy and democracy, and thwarting fake news and Russian trolls, we end up reducing our freedom of choice and of opinion. Social media, and the internet more generally, are one of the rare areas where those with the most varied opinions, including minority or politically incorrect views, can express themselves and argue the merits of their opinions.
Moreover, the possibility of collecting data and micro-targeting is precisely what makes Facebook, Google and other free platforms attractive. We should not be at all surprised that these data are collected not only to sell us shoes, but also to influence our voting behaviour.
Indeed, these companies have many employees, and make huge profits. It’s obvious that their users are making a deal: In exchange for a service that is initially free, they collect personal data. This is exactly why I refuse to be active on Facebook. We can keep enacting more laws, but at some point, people have to take some responsibility and accept that there is no Santa Claus.
There already exist parameters to control the level of confidentiality on these platforms. In reaction to the controversy, Facebook last week announced measures to increase this control. The giants of the internet could only have achieved their immense success, and maintained it, by giving consumers what they want and earning their trust. Even without additional regulation, they will adapt.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.
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