Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Election Protection

“An article on Sunday about Campbell Brown’s role as Facebook’s head of news partnerships erroneously included a reference to Palestinian actions as an example of the sort of far-right conspiracy stories that have plagued Facebook. In fact, Palestinian officials have acknowledged providing payments to the families of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks on Israelis or convicted of terrorist acts and imprisoned in Israel; that is not a conspiracy theory.”
—Correction published in The New York Times, April 24

“Zuckerberg Bombarded with Facebook Ads for Suits, Haircuts”
—Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, April 12
“I hate the internet!”

So declared someone in our house recently while reading her phone. I share her annoyance. Her exclamation was presumably prompted by yet another email asking or demanding her to review and approve a revised privacy policy for some web site or app. I’ve been getting a lot of those myself, and I am guessing that you are too.

On Friday the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes into effect, spurring internet companies and publishers to comply by informing and/or getting permissions from their consumers. Generally, companies outside the EU seem to be following suit because it makes sense business-wise. The GDPR was adopted two years ago, but its imminent long-planned implementation has timely urgency in the wake of concerns over deceptive social media advertising and aggressive data mining, such as Cambridge Analytica’s early work for the Trump campaign. It is interesting to note that, in the past, these sorts of European edicts were directives that then had to be enacted in national legislation for them to take effect in each country. By contrast, this regulation is directly enforceable by the EU on its own authority. I think we can pretty much consider the EU a true super-state now.

Like most things governments do to protect or look out for the interests of citizens, much of the burden—and indirectly the cost—ends up landing on the shoulders of those very same citizens. It creates a lot of profitable work for lawyers who are required to draw up new user agreements and policies, and end-users wind up with clogged in-boxes full of links to long, detailed, jargon-filled on-line documents that few will bother to actually read. In the end, will we all be safer privacy-wise? Count me as a hard skeptic.

Something else is happening on Friday. Ireland is holding a referendum in which voters will decide whether to preserve or delete language in the national constitution giving the unborn equal status under the law with the women who carry them. I find it strange that a constitution would actually include medical policy in the first place, but on the other hand, the U.S. Constitution does the same (although to opposite effect)—at least as ruled by the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade, which said that abortion is a constitutional right. If Friday’s referendum passes, the government has said it will legislate to make abortion freely available in Ireland up to the twelfth week and in limited cases after that. Polling suggests that the repeal will be enacted, largely on the strength of a surge in registration of urban voters.

No one can have missed the competing campaigns, as posters proclaiming “Yes” (“Tá” in Irish) and “No” cover every available electricity and telephone pole. The debate is also taking place on the internet, and that is where we may be getting a glimpse of where the hysteria over Russian “meddling” may lead us. A couple of weeks ago Facebook announced that it would ban any referendum advertising that originated outside of Ireland. Google went a step further and said it would ban all Irish referendum advertising—regardless of geographic origin—from the large number of web sites displaying ads via Google. (My own movie blog would be the most minor of examples of sites running Google’s third-party ads.) Interestingly the Yes side declared it was quite happy with this, while the No side cried foul. The anti-abortion side has benefited significantly from foreign supporters, notably groups in the U.S.

Legally, Facebook and Google are private companies which are entitled to accept or reject advertising from any clients they wish, but a moment like this drives home just how much influence these businesses’ decisions can have in the general dissemination of ideas and opinions. Internet companies are under intense pressure to eliminate “fake news” from users’ feeds, but who gets to say exactly what “fake news” is? If you are one of the millions of Americans who are distraught over the last presidential election, you may see no problem with social media companies filtering out foreign-sourced posts working to Donald Trump’s advantage. Once you start censoring content for any reason, though, there will be unintended consequences or—if you are a cynic—possible malevolent intended consequences. It is worth remembering that the Russians also did some boosting of Bernie Sanders, since their ultimate goal was to undermine the supposedly inevitable winner, Hillary Clinton.

Here is another way to look at it. Suppose the Russians, instead of using Facebook and other social media, had put their provocative political content on good old-fashioned paper and put it into envelopes and mailed them through the U.S. Postal Service. Would we now be talking about having the post office filter out certain types of letters with certain kinds of content from its system?

The difference between snail mail and social media is that, unlike the USPS, Facebook is a private company that would like to keep government regulation as light as possible. As such, it is susceptible to influence from politicians—not to mention its own internal biases. Also, the nature of digital data is such that, unlike traditional mail, it is relatively easy to design algorithms to screen out certain types of information deliberately.

Just as ordinary citizens are the ones who bear the ultimate burden when governments and super-states try to protect us, it could ultimately be our access to a free flow of information—the good along with the bad—which could suffer because hysterical people did not like the outcome of one election.