Personal details, taxation, security… The digital giants have to reexamine themselves.
The good thing about scandals is that they throw a harsh light on the truth. The revelation that the personal details of 87 million Facebook users were hijacked by Cambridge Analytica has brought into the full light of day the threats to our privacy caused by the digital economy. The shock wave that has reached the digital economy is the equivalent of the one that affected the world of finance when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. Its repercussions are even more important given the global nature of the digital revolution that no one can escape. What is at stake is nothing less than the ability to start up a business, access to knowledge, personal freedom and the right to vote, i.e. the foundations of the market economy and of democracy.
Once triumphant and highly praised, the Gafam (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft) have been caught up in a perfect storm. The exoneration of digital platforms from tax law and labor law has been breached by the rebellion of governments and associates. Under question is their monopolistic situation: Google and Facebook control almost 80% of online advertising in North America and Europe. The targeting of individuals and their confinement in communities contribute to the radicalization of opinions. Last but not least, the social media have occasionally been made the unwitting accomplices of cyber-criminals, Jihadists and of the Russian démocrature [a combination of democracy and dictatorship] as shown in the American elections of 2016 and the Brexit referendum.
Awareness of the dark side of the digital world largely explains the stock market adjustment in early 2018. The Gafam, with some 3,500 billion dollars of capitalization – despite losses of 450 billion between March and April – are systemic. This means that, even if their revenue is not under threat in the short term, their economic model is now obsolete.
Mark Zuckerberg has turned George Orwell’s nightmare into reality. Apart from giving outside companies personal data without authorization, the basic problem posed by the Cambridge Analytica affair lies in the quantity and depth of information that social media have accumulated about billions of people without their knowing. All the data is collected, stored and used without any limit or precaution. In actual fact, users have made a pact with the devil. Free enrolment hides the fact that one gives up any form of privacy and agrees to be followed at any moment of time, to be targeted by advertisements that undergo no control as to their provenance or their content. The digital industry shows that, in the economic order of things, anything free is in fact theft: theft of people’s personal details; theft of associates’ salaries; theft of taxes owed to governments. This model was justified for a long time by the ideology of disruption – hallowed by Barack Obama – which justified emancipation from the law and from government in the name of innovation at all costs, by – the mythical – Internet freedom and self-regulation, by competition with China and the protection given to its leaders: Baidu for research, Alibaba for online commerce and Tencent through the WeChat messenger service. This is untenable today. The digital industry must reinvent itself and the Gafam must be brought under the rule of law.
The answer must lie in three areas: legal, political and moral, with five priorities. Firstly, to apply the laws of competition – which suggests dismantling Google, the Standard Oil of the 21st century – and to forbid the Gafam’s systematic acquisition of start-ups that might become their competitors. Secondly, to make digital platforms comply with tax and labor law. Thirdly, to make social media recognize their responsibility for the content of the messages put out and to oversee political advertising. Fourthly, to ensure an equitable sharing of added value and advertising revenue with the publishers of content. Finally, and above all, to organize the protection of personal details. Since US legislation has its hands tied, this is where Europe has a key role to play. Lagging behind the USA and China, this is a unique opportunity for Europe to catch up. The general regulations governing the protection of personal details, which apply to any company that collects data from European citizens, comes into force on 25th May this year and could be used as the international standard for the developed world. It will then be the responsibility of each person to limit, control and update the data collected by social media.
Privacy is not a “social norm” that belongs in the past, as Mark Zuckerberg said in 2010. It is a fundamental right that, like the environment, is quick and easy to destroy and long and hard to rebuild. Obviously, the digital era cannot come along based only on politics and morals, but we cannot build it without them.
(Column published in Le Point, 19th April 2018)