Law in the Internet Society

What the Cambridge Analytica Scandal Reveals About the State of Our Global Commons

-- By JakeTaylor - 08 Oct 2019


The internet is our new global commons. Through a variety of interconnected applications, we have an online persona that allows us to speak to one another without eye contact, to find love without the anxiety-inducing fear of rejection and to receive the information from (only) where and (only) whom we want to listen to.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, unlike few other episodes in modern history, has exposed the public to the vulnerabilities of our democracy (and traditional election process) to the data harvesting machine that our commons, as presently constructed, is built upon. Moreover, the scandal introduces us to the more pervasive impact of mass data collection on the notion of democratic self-governance itself.

The Internet as Commons

Within the online commons, we have already seen the benefits of a de-centralized and non-linear space for public discussions. We have Wikipedia - we have the potential for unencumbered access to thoughts as well as the space to discuss, dissect and develop the ideas that naturally flow. This conceptualization of the internet is more than a marketplace for thoughts and ideas, it is the world’s university. Here, the potential for the development of humanity is unheralded.

Nevertheless, a number of private entities or technological oligarchs have been incredibly successful at taking this notion of commons, packaging it in distinctive colors, branding it, subjecting it to hierarchy, closing it off from alteration and marketing it as ‘community’, ‘hangouts’ or ‘the [twitter]sphere’. Most significantly, they have been able to monetize the commons itself in order to become some of the most lucrative private companies in history.

The sheer parasitic brilliance of these services is that the cost of access for individuals is not in dollars, but in something far more valuable – personal information (a commodity more valuable than oil). The ubiquity of the smart phone has facilitated this relationship. No longer a phone and far more than computer, these devices are a pod for: analysis, research, resale and targeted advertising: the ‘Parasite with the Mind of God’.

What the Cambridge Analytica scandal shows us is that this can and has been weaponized against segments of society, impacting upon democracy itself.

The Impact of Cambridge Analytica on Our Understanding of the Commons

In the election context, most prominently in the Brexit referendum, Cambridge Analytica was able to rely upon the personal and personalized information of approximately 50M people, from information scraped from Facebook, and use psychographic tools to target individuals (through online advertisements) with customized content designed to pray on their fears and/or hopes based on its analysis of voters’ personality traits.

In the Brexit context, those targeted - the persuadables, amounted to a small proportion of the electorate. The referendum was nevertheless impacted by small margins. However, to limit discussions regarding the actions of Cambridge Analytica as to whether the company’s actions were outcome-determinative in one electoral incident, is to miss the more generally relevant point relating to psychographically-targeted "push communications," and how they effect human behavior. The desire to purchase or to not, the decision vote or not, both fall on a spectrum of susceptibility to targeted influence.

Away from the election context, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has nevertheless laid bare the level of pervasiveness of Facebook (as well as other digital oligarchs’) data collection structure. In this way, the Terms of Service can be seen as a new digital ‘social contract’. The contract requires, in exchange for interconnectedness, the commoditization of personally identifiable information – privacy - and the blind trust in information oligarchies who hold that information.

Facebook at Odds with Democracy

As against this backdrop, what Cambridge Analytica did “was much less important than how the media has portrayed it because… it was nothing shocking or radically unexpected;. The data collection model of the internet (Facebook) is fundamentally inconsistent with the values of the commons we want.

The scandal lays bare the realities of what Shoshana Zobhoff describes as surveillance capitalism, and that, notwithstanding public comments to the contrary, Facebook has little incentive to change, its fundamental purpose is to track, collect and to target. It is an advertising agency and in this way, is antithetical to the democratizing commons described above. Whilst society may be blind to this reality, those politicians who wish to displacine important social priorities in favour of personal political gains, are clearly not. In his book about Cambridge Analytica's work, whistle-blower Christopher describes an unnamed African country moved similar money out of its health ministry in order to pay for the firm's services.

The Need for Adjustments

I am both in awe of the potential of the internet as well as terrified of the current social cost to access.

In the face of such compelling societal concerns as identified by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the resistance to change seems to be towards a belief that it does not visibily impact 'me' and to cries of ‘convenience’. Putting to one side the legitimacy of such assertions as well as the need for government intervention, solutions exist at least on the individual level. Cryptography and the changing of individual privacy settings and the adoption of more protective habits (Firefox, proton mail and signal) are a start. Education both of one’s self as well as of the next generation of the lived reality that privacy is understood as fundamental to freedom and democracy and not merely a preference.

The benefits to the above are two-fold, such actions both ensure greater individual protection but also impact upon the market and force companies to listen and practices to change. If the resistance to change is ‘convenience’ then the small changes referred to above can be marketed as ‘adjustments’ nevertheless, they are ones that are fundamental to reclaiming privacy, democracy and freedom.

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r5 - 04 Feb 2020 - 03:56:56 - JakeTaylor
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