The whole World is upset and even surprised at the revelations about Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and the 2016 US presidential campaign. At last, angry of Tunbridge Wells has a real bone to chew on. The outrage is palpable and around the world lawmakers, regulators, and the moral majorities are sharpening their knives for revenge. But, we need to take a deep breath and work our way through the issues.

1 Was there a ‘wrong’

Undoubtedly, there is a perceived moral concern about the use of our personal data on any of the social networks. In this case, the transgression occurred in 2014 when some of the Terms of Service were different.

Is what happened, illegal or just immoral? This article in the Cambridge News seems to sum it up, best. The quote is from Facebook.

Paul Grewal, VP & Deputy General Counsel for Facebook said: “In 2015, we learned that a psychology professor at the University of Cambridge named Dr Aleksandr Kogan lied to us and violated our Platform Policies by passing data from an app that was using Facebook Login to SCL/Cambridge Analytica, a firm that does political, government and military work around the globe. He also passed that data to Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, Inc.

Like all app developers, Kogan requested and gained access to information from people after they chose to download his app. His app, ‘thisisyourdigitallife,’ offered a personality prediction, and billed itself on Facebook as ‘a research app used by psychologists.’ Approximately 270,000 people downloaded the app.

In so doing, they gave their consent for Kogan to access information such as the city they set on their profile, or content they had liked, as well as more limited information about friends who had their privacy settings set to allow it. Although Kogan gained access to this information in a legitimate way and through the proper channels that governed all developers on Facebook at that time, he did not subsequently abide by our rules.

By passing information on to a third party, including SCL/Cambridge Analytica and Christopher Wylie of Eunoia Technologies, he violated our platform policies. When we learned of this violation in 2015, we removed his app from Facebook and demanded certifications from Kogan and all parties he had given data to that the information had been destroyed. Cambridge Analytica, Kogan and Wylie all certified to us that they destroyed the data.

Facebook is arguing it was a breach of their Terms. That argument will rumble on, however, Facebook does seem to agree that the initial harvesting the personal details was within the service terms operating in 2014.

Zuckerberg today has said a “breach of trust” had occurred and as an analysis by Dave Lee, BBC North America technology reporter points out: Facebook is not prepared to take the blame for what has happened.  There is no apology to users, investors, or staff over how this incident was allowed to happen by the data policies in place at the time.

2 What did Cambridge Analytica do?

The company is accused of using the personal data of millions of Facebook users to influence how people vote. Its website says that it used personal data to sway the outcome of the US 2016 presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum. It boasts of supporting more than 100 campaigns across five continents also claiming to have helped the Orange Revolution in 2004 in Ukraine which helped bring the pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko to power.

A question to the then CEO of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix, a couple of days ago asked about the democratic impact of their work, and he was asked if the activity was a distortion of democracy.

In all this debate this is the most important question and the one that will probably be overlooked. Today any considerations are being distorted by questions of the legality of the data being used.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that everything was legal and in line with the Facebook service terms.

In 2017 there was a general election in the UK and the Labour party polled far better than expected. They mobilised younger voters who presumably are greater users of social networks. It has been said that at the core of their success was their digital strategy and micro-targeting.

For the moment, put to one side the source of their data lists, and ask if this was a distortion of democracy. That argument was never raised and all I ever heard from opposition parties was a touch of envy and a promise to do better.

The Cambridge Analytica data was supposedly used to support President Trump into office. As you will know I think that he is the worst and most dangerous US President we have ever seen but I can’t support criticism of him and his campaign using all legal means possible to secure a vote.

In my opinion, Cambridge Analytica are an arrogant and overblown consultancy promising far more than they can deliver. Their claims for micro-targeting are nothing like as effective as they say. Much of it is snake oil. Later research will probably show that the cost per individual Trump vote was prohibitive.

However, the sheer mass of specific, targeted messages undoubtedly created the news agenda giving him his misogynist and racist platform.

3 Should we read all the Terms of Service?

Finally, if you use Facebook and the social networks you should have known what might happen. You have no excuse.

I have signed up on many sites and when it comes to the tick the box to confirm acceptance of the Terms and Conditions, I just tick. I want the service and I know that I can’t change the T&Cs even if I managed to read them.

There was an experiment in the UK where a free internet hub was set up in central London. To use the hub, you had to agree to the T&C. If the users had read them they would have seen that under certain conditions they would have to give up their first-born child.

The warnings have been there for years. If you tell the whole world you had a black coffee this morning to cure yet another hangover from last night binge drinking, then don’t be surprised if a potential employer spots the pattern.

I know the terms and conditions are unreadable, but no one can claim that they didn’t know. There is some help at hand. I was pointed to a website (https://tldrlegal.com/) which takes the T&C of many providers and puts them into understandable English.

Of course, in the current furore went straight to those of Facebook. Against the ‘content’ section they translate it as: Facebook can use stuff that you “post on or in connection with Facebook” that you have intellectual property rights to. Facebook loses rights to your stuff if you delete it or your account, so long as others have not shared (without later deleting) your stuff. Publishing stuff using the “Public setting” gives everyone else rights to that stuff.  

4 Some conclusions

As always it is only historians who will be able to draw any conclusions, but it is for us, now, to act.

This current issue will work itself out and the role of social media will be discussed endlessly.

Data privacy is hugely important, and the liberal elite would clamp down on every transgression, but I will say that we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Social media platforms are free, and they also do good. The Arab Spring was fuelled by Facebook and if they are so bad why do we create such a fuss about them being banned in China?

The internet is here forever, and the technologies embedded in the social media settings and the cookies on our computer do have advantages. I know that if I give anything for free then eventually there will be a price to pay.   I would much rather have targeted adverts that may be of interest than random rubbish.