Our twentieth-century copyright and property laws aren’t fit for a twenty-first century worldby Sam Moore / March 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
This morning, something happened that would shock anybody that’s seen the film The Social Network. Mark Zuckerberg said sorry. The Facebook founder apologised for what he called a “breach of trust” arising from the dealings between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, which allegedly harvested users’ data without their consent, and then used it to psychologically profile them and, in some cases, deliver them pro-Trump material on Facebook.
This raises a lot of questions—beyond just what all of this means in a purely technical sense. It also forces us to ask questions about this data: who should own it, and what can be done when it gets used. Essentially, the question becomes one about human and property rights, and about how we need to reconsider them in a world where technology and social media have become more and more ubiquitous. Beyond all of the technical jargon, the Cambridge Analytica data breach is really about people.
This is the sort of thing that the U.S. Supreme Court debated some time ago, coming to a conclusion straight out of science-fiction: that corporations are people. This led to, among other things, an artist turning herself into a corporation and putting a concrete price on her personal data.
But even that story is a few years old. Now, with companies expanding and moving to the internet, the questions of their apparent humanity rights, as well as the rights of their uses, needs to be reconsidered.
Only eight years after the infamous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, technology has developed rapidly, and social media is everywhere with the number of Facebook users almost tripling from the first quarter of 2011 to the final quarter of 2017.
2010 is also the year that The Social Network was released, and in it, Justin Timberlake’s Sean Parker prophesised “we lived in farms, we lived in cities, and now we’re going to live on the internet.” We might not be living on the internet yet, but it seems like we’re getting closer to it, with billions of people spending sometimes long hours on Facebook, all of them putting a little or a lot of their lives onto the website in the form of their personal data.
Because people don’t own the data that they put online, which they can’t take any kind of action if their data is taken and used in the way that it has allegedly been by Cambridge Analytica. So what we were told by a Facebook spokesperson, that “the current focus is on protecting your data being exploited by third parties,” isn’t enough. If it’s true that “data is being exploited all the time,” there needs to be a more robust, and legally effective way to deal with it—one that puts into law the rights that a person should have when it comes to their personal data.
Legislation could ensure that individuals retain ownership of the data they put online, and oblige tech companies to obtain the full consent of users before using their data with third partie. This would mean offering legal coverage to users, and a dividend of profits from the data used.
This would be an ideal step forward, one that understands not only the proliferation of tech companies and the amount of personal data put online, but also the need for real recourse if this data is misused.
This suggestion, made by Paddy Ashdown, once again touches on the humanity of this issue lingering beneath all the technical and legal jargon. Laws around private property and coyright are centred around post-war, mid-twentieth-century ideas—ones that weren’t even equipped to deal with the idea of personal data.
But now as the world has moved on, the law needs to move on with it. As we move in to a future where our relationship with technology continues to develop, we need our laws and rights to reflect more than just the past, but to also provide us with a blueprint for the future.