How the FTC and Facebook can help fix the World Wide Web
A potential $5 billion penalty for failing to protect consumer data in the digital age should give everyone pause.
For everyone who uses the WWW, makes money from it, or both, FTC’s fine signals that the world wide web’s untethered practices are coming under regulators’ and consumers’ watchful glare. Few companies will escape the intensifying scrutiny of consumers eager to wield their privacy rights and regulators happy to oblige with new laws and regulations.
Companies whose business models are based on trading consumer data will need to change course. Legal changes governing the data ecosystem are about to put future revenues at risk. Looking to Facebook for answers won’t lower those risks.
If not, what will? And will businesses rise to the challenge?
Let’s face it: the world wide web has become unmanageable. The need to course correct has been building up for at least a decade. In 2011, when Facebook agreed to settle charges brought by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), it promised to take much needed steps to secure the vast sums of data they collected.
Fast forward to today, one wonders whether that promise was ever realistic in light of ongoing investigations into Cambridge Analytica’s use of the records of 87M Facebook users for political ad targeting. Cambridge Analytica’s actions have put Facebook back in the FTC’s crosshairs and the court of public opinion.
Yet for all the articles, tweets, and the congressional hearing the scandal has led to, everyone whose attention has been riveted on Facebook continues to miss an important point: the WWW continuously harvests and exchanges consumer information in order to influence their behavior, whether as shoppers or voters. Regardless of the penalties Facebook faces, data collection on unknowing consumers will continue in the broader digital ecosystem.
In other words, it’s a problem with the entire WWW, not just Facebook. And with the next US presidential elections fast approaching, avoiding the scandals that rocked 2016 takes on more urgency.
Consumers as products
When asked how Facebook remains free, Zuckerberg responded, “…we run ads.” This is a fact for many social platforms, media publishers, online retailers, and other businesses that make money from the web. The other less known fact is these businesses harvest consumer information and give access to this data in order to run personalized ads. This data forms part of the package that online publishers and platforms offer to advertisers.
The problem is, for years consumers had no clue that their online behaviors were being tracked; nor that their data was being shared or sold. Recent data scandals have awoken them to this reality. And consumers want to wrest some control over their data, and their choices.
What it all means
As consumers demand greater data privacy rights, regulators and companies are scrambling to give them what they want. Everyone has taken a keen interest in the FTC’s recent activity, because how it plays out will have thoroughgoing repercussions for the WWW.
The changes they unleash will help us cross a new milestone in the WWW’s 30-year history, particularly relating to the data ecosystem that has increasingly been viewed as a threat to consumer privacy. Caught between a desire to keep pace with technology, and feeling emboldened by their new powers, regulators and governments are using this moment to keep the tech companies in line.
Our collective, myopic focus on Facebook and its third parties blinds us to the larger issue, which businesses and governments should finally address: the dissolution of consumer privacy as the data ecosystem—an offshoot of the digital—matures. For years, players across the digital ecosystem invoked “personalized online experience” to justify their unrestrained collection and exchange of consumer data.
Meanwhile, consumers wondered how items they looked up on one site managed to follow them across various websites as ads. The steady stream of data scandals finally reached a tipping point, turning consumer puzzlement into outrage. And there’s no going back to the age of digital innocence. The entire digital ecosystem is at fault and must be taken to account.
Taking an inventory
Facebook was not the first company—nor will it be the last—to unknowingly give a digital third-party free rein of user data. If businesses that use, transact, inform, share, and entertain via the WWW were to take a thorough inventory of exactly what it is they do to consumers who use their website, apps, or platform, chances are they’d be surprised at what they’d find.
First, they will notice third parties they never knew existed. Second, their jaws will collectively drop when they learn how much visitor/user information these third parties hoard or, at the very least, are privy to. The question they must ask themselves is whether these data practices are acceptable—regardless of what new data privacy laws they now or will soon fall under.
Revisiting the digital town square
Tim Berners-Lee had a simple vision for the WWW—a digital town square where groups could gather for little or no cost, to discuss ideas. Fixing the WWW could build on this vision. Businesses and regulators can collaborate on drafting new rules of engagement.
Recently, the AOP developed a cookie consortium that consists of the UK’s top premier publishers and their tech vendors. Everyone agrees to the same protocols. Participating vendors declare all their data tracking technologies (including cookies) to the publishers and agree to engage only in activities that conform to the protocols.
This is a perfect example of collaboration/community policing that fosters trust among the various players and provides consumers with safe digital spaces to engage with content and virtual communities, as Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.
Data privacy is the new normal. In this environment, consumers will do business with companies that demonstrate good will and the ability to protect their data.