To serve a free society, social media must evolve beyond data mining

Barbara Romzek and Aram Sinnreich at The Conversation: “…For years, watchdogs have been warning about sharing information with data-collecting companies, firms engaged in the relatively new line of business called some academics have called “surveillance capitalism.” Most casual internet users are only now realizing how easy – and common – it is for unaccountable and unknown organizations to assemble detailed digital profiles of them. They do this by combining the discrete bits of information consumers have given up to e-tailers, health sites, quiz apps and countless other digital services.

As scholars of public accountability and digital media systems, we know that the business of social media is based on extracting user data and offering it for sale. There’s no simple way for them to protect data as many users might expect. Like the social pollution of fake news, bullying and spam that Facebook’s platform spreads, the company’s privacy crisis also stems from a power imbalance: Facebook knows nearly everything about its users, who know little to nothing about it.

It’s not enough for people to delete their Facebook accounts. Nor is it likely that anyone will successfully replace it with a nonprofit alternativecentering on privacy, transparency and accountability. Furthermore, this problem is not specific just to Facebook. Other companies, including Google and Amazon, also gather and exploit extensive personal data, and are locked in a digital arms race that we believe threatens to destroy privacy altogether….

Governments need to be better guardians of public welfare – including privacy. Many companies using various aspects of technology in new ways have so far avoided regulation by stoking fears that rules might stifle innovation. Facebook and others have often claimed that they’re better at regulating themselves in an ever-changing environment than a slow-moving legislative process could be….

To encourage companies to serve democratic principles and focus on improving people’s lives, we believe the chief business model of the internet needs to shift to building trust and verifying information. While it won’t be an immediate change, social media companies pride themselves on their adaptability and should be able to take on this challenge.

The alternative, of course, could be far more severe. In the 1980s, when federal regulators decided that AT&T was using its power in the telephone market to hurt competition and consumers, they forced the massive conglomerate to break up. A similar but less dramatic change happened in the early 2000s when cellphone companies were forced to let people keep their phone numbers even if they switched carriers.

Data, and particularly individuals’ personal data, are the precious metals of the internet age. Protecting individual data while expanding access to the internet and its many social benefits is a fundamental challenge for free societies. Creating, using and protecting data properly will be crucial to preserving and improving human rights and civil liberties in this still young century. To meet this challenge will require both vigilance and vision, from businesses and their customers, as well as governments and their citizens….(More).