Twitter is banning political ads – but the real battle for democracy is with Facebook and Google



Twitter should get credit for its sensible move, but the microblogging company is tiny compared to Facebook and Google.
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Johan Lidberg, Monash University

Finally, some good news from the weirdo-sphere that is social media. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has announced that, effective November 22, the microblogging platform will ban all political advertising – globally.

This is a momentous move by Twitter. It comes when Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg are under increasing pressure to deal with the amount of mis- and disinformation published via paid political advertising on Facebook.

Zuckerberg recently told a congress hearing Facebook had no plans of fact-checking political ads, and he did not answer a direct question from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if Facebook would take down political ads found to be untrue. Not a good look.

A few days after Zuckerberg’s train wreck appearance before the congress committee, Twitter announced its move.




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While Twitter should get credit for its sensible move, the microblogging company is tiny compared to Facebook and Google. So, until the two giants change, Twitter’s political ad ban will have little effect on elections around the globe.

A symptom of the democratic flu

It’s important to call out Google on political advertising. The company often manages to fly under the radar on this issue, hiding behind Facebook, which takes most of the flack.

The global social media platforms are injecting poison into liberal democratic systems around the globe. The misinformation and outright lies they allow to be published on their platforms is partly responsible for the increasingly bitter deep partisan divides between different sides of politics in most mature liberal democracies.

Add to this the micro targeting of voters illustrated by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and a picture emerges of long-standing democratic systems under extreme stress. This is clearly exemplified by the UK parliament’s paralysis over Brexit and the canyon-deep political divides in the US.




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Banning political advertising only deals with a symptom of the democratic flu the platforms are causing. The root cause of the flu is the fact social media platforms are no longer only platforms – they are publishers.

Until they acknowledge this and agree to adhere to the legal and ethical frameworks connected with publishing, our democracies will not recover.

Not platforms, but publishers

Being a publisher is complex and much more expensive than being a platform. You have to hire editorial staff (unless you can create algorithms advanced enough to do editorial tasks) to fact-check, edit and curate content. And you have to become a good corporate citizen, accepting you have social responsibilities.

Convincing the platforms to accept their publisher role is the most long-term and sustainable way of dealing with the current toxic content issue.

Accepting publisher status could be a win-win, where the social media companies rebuild trust with the public and governments by acting ethcially and socially responsibly, stopping the poisoning of our democracies.

Mark Zuckerberg claims Facebook users being able to publish lies and misinformation is a free speech issue. It is not. Free speech is a privilege as well as a right and, like all privileges, it comes with responsibilities and limitations.

Examples of limitations are defamation laws and racial vilification and discrimination laws. And that’s just the legal framework. The strong ethical frame work that applies to publishing should be added to this.

Ownership concentration like never before

Then, there’s the global social media oligopoly issue. Never before in recorded human history have we seen any industry achieve a level of ownership concentration displayed by the social media companies. This is why this issue is so deeply serious. It’s global, it reaches billions and the money and profits involved is staggering.




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The fightback against Facebook is getting stronger


Facebook co-founder, Chris Hughes, got it absolutely right when he in his New York Times article pointed out the Federal Trade Commission – the US equivalent to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission – got it wrong when they allowed Facebook to buy Instagram and WhatsApp.

Hughes wants Facebook broken up and points to the attempts from parts of US civil society moving in this direction. He writes:

This movement of public servants, scholars and activists deserves our support. Mark Zuckerberg cannot fix Facebook, but our government can.

Yesterday, I posted on my Facebook timeline for the first time since the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. I made the point that after Twitter’s announcement, the ball is now squarely in Facebook’s and Google’s courts.

For research and professional reasons, I cannot delete my Facebook account. But I can pledge to not be an active Facebook user until the company grows up and shoulders its social responsibility as an ethical publisher that enhances our democracies instead of undermining them.The Conversation

Johan Lidberg, Associate Professor, School of Media, Film and Journalism, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian media regulators face the challenge of dealing with global platforms Google and Facebook



‘Google and Facebook are global companies, headquartered in the US, for whom Australia is a significant but relatively small market.’
Shutterstock/Roman Pyshchyk

Terry Flew, Queensland University of Technology

With concerns growing worldwide about the economic power of digital technology giants such as Google and Facebook, there was plenty of interest internationally in Australia’s Digital Platforms Inquiry.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) inquiry was seen as undertaking a forensic account of market dominance by digital platforms, and the implications for Australian media and the rights of citizens around privacy and data protection.

The inquiry’s final report, released last month, has been analysed from perspectives such as competition policy, consumer protection and the future of journalism.




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But the major limitation facing the ACCC, and the Australian government, in developing new regulations for digital platforms is jurisdictional authority – given these companies are headquartered in the United States.

More ‘platform neutral’ approach

Among the ACCC’s 23 recommendations is a proposal to reform media regulations to move from the current platform-specific approaches (different rules for television, radio, and print media) towards a “platform-neutral” approach.

This will ensure comparable functions are effectively and consistently regulated:

Digitalisation and the increase in online sources of news and media content highlight inconsistencies in the current sector-specific approach to media regulation in Australia […]

Digital platforms increasingly perform similar functions to media businesses, such as selecting and curating content, evaluating content, and ranking and arranging content online. Despite this, virtually no media regulation applies to digital platforms.

The ACCC’s recommendations to harmonise regulations across different types of media draw on major Australian public enquiries from the early 2010s, such as the Convergence Review and the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review of the national media classification system. These reports identified the inappropriateness of “silo-ised” media laws and regulations in an age of digital convergence.




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The ACCC also questions the continued appropriateness of the distinction between platforms and publishers in an age where the largest digital platforms are not simply the carriers of messages circulated among their users.

The report observes that such platforms are increasingly at the centre of digital content distribution. Online consumers increasingly access social news through platforms such as Facebook and Google, as well as video content through YouTube.

The advertising dollar

While the ACCC inquiry focused on the impact of digital platforms on news, we can see how they have transformed the media landscape more generally, and where issues of the wider public good arise.

Their dominance over advertising has undercut traditional media business models. Online now accounts for about 50% of total advertising spend, and the ACCC estimates that 71 cents of every dollar spent on digital advertising in Australia goes to Google or Facebook.

All media are now facing the implications of a more general migration to online advertising, as platforms can better micro-target consumers rather than relying on the broad brush approach of mass media advertising.

The larger issue facing potential competitors to the digital giants is the accumulation of user data. This includes the lack of transparency around algorithmic sorting of such data, and the capacity to use machine learning to apply powerful predictive analytics to “big data”.

In line with recent critiques of platform capitalism, the ACCC is concerned about the lack of information consumers have about what data the platforms hold and how it’s being used.

It’s also concerned the “winner-takes-most” nature of digital markets creates a long term structural crisis for media businesses, with particularly severe implications for public interest journalism.

Digital diversity

Digital platform companies do not sit easily within a recognisable industry sector as they branch across information technology, content media, and advertising.

They’re also not alike. While all rely on the capacity to generate and make use of consumer data, their business models differ significantly.

The ACCC chose to focus only on Google and Facebook, but they are quite different entities.

Google dominates search advertising and is largely a content aggregator, whereas Facebook for the most part provides display advertising that accompanies user-generated social media. This presents its own challenges in crafting a regulatory response to the rise of these digital platform giants.

A threshold issue is whether digital platforms should be understood to be media businesses, or businesses in a more generic sense.

Communications policy in the 1990s and 2000s commonly differentiated digital platforms as carriers. This indemnified them from laws and regulations relating to content that users uploaded onto their sites.

But this carriage/content distinction has always coexisted with active measures on the part of the platform companies to manage content that is hosted on their sites. Controversies around content moderation, and the legal and ethical obligations of platform providers, have accelerated greatly in recent years.

To the degree that companies such as Google and Facebook increasingly operate as media businesses, this would bring aspects of their activities within the regulatory purview of the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA).

The ACCC recommended ACMA should be responsible for brokering a code of conduct governing commercial relationships between the digital platforms and news providers.




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This would give it powers related to copyright enforcement, allow it to monitor how platforms are acting to guarantee the trustworthiness and reliability of news content, and minimise the circulation of “fake news” on their sites.

Overseas, but over here

Companies such as Google and Facebook are global companies, headquartered in the US, for whom Australia is a significant but relatively small market.

The capacity to address competition and market dominance issues is limited by the fact real action could only meaningfully occur in their home market of the US.

Australian regulators are going to need to work closely with their counterparts in other countries and regions: the US and the European Union are the two most significant in this regard.The Conversation

Terry Flew, Professor of Communication and Creative Industries, Queensland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Shadow profiles – Facebook knows about you, even if you’re not on Facebook


Andrew Quodling, Queensland University of Technology

Facebook’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg faced two days of grilling before US politicians this week, following concerns over how his company deals with people’s data.

But the data Facebook has on people who are not signed up to the social media giant also came under scrutiny.

During Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony he claimed to be ignorant of what are known as “shadow profiles”.

Zuckerberg: I’m not — I’m not familiar with that.

That’s alarming, given that we have been discussing this element of Facebook’s non-user data collection for the past five years, ever since the practice was brought to light by researchers at Packet Storm Security.

Maybe it was just the phrase “shadow profiles” with which Zuckerberg was unfamiliar. It wasn’t clear, but others were not impressed by his answer.

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Facebook’s proactive data-collection processes have been under scrutiny in previous years, especially as researchers and journalists have delved into the workings of Facebook’s “Download Your Information” and “People You May Know” tools to report on shadow profiles.

Shadow profiles

To explain shadow profiles simply, let’s imagine a simple social group of three people – Ashley, Blair and Carmen – who already know one another, and have each others’ email address and phone numbers in their phones.

If Ashley joins Facebook and uploads her phone contacts to Facebook’s servers, then Facebook can proactively suggest friends whom she might know, based on the information she uploaded.

For now, let’s imagine that Ashley is the first of her friends to join Facebook. The information she uploaded is used to create shadow profiles for both Blair and Carmen — so that if Blair or Carmen joins, they will be recommended Ashley as a friend.

Next, Blair joins Facebook, uploading his phone’s contacts too. Thanks to the shadow profile, he has a ready-made connection to Ashley in Facebook’s “People You May Know” feature.

At the same time, Facebook has learned more about Carmen’s social circle — in spite of the fact that Carmen has never used Facebook, and therefore has never agreed to its policies for data collection.

Despite the scary-sounding name, I don’t think there is necessarily any malice or ill will in Facebook’s creation and use of shadow profiles.

It seems like a earnestly designed feature in service of Facebooks’s goal of connecting people. It’s a goal that clearly also aligns with Facebook’s financial incentives for growth and garnering advertising attention.

But the practice brings to light some thorny issues around consent, data collection, and personally identifiable information.

What data?

Some of the questions Zuckerberg faced this week highlighted issues relating to the data that Facebook collects from users, and the consent and permissions that users give (or are unaware they give).

Facebook is often quite deliberate in its characterisations of “your data”, rejecting the notion that it “owns” user data.

That said, there are a lot of data on Facebook, and what exactly is “yours” or just simply “data related to you” isn’t always clear. “Your data” notionally includes your posts, photos, videos, comments, content, and so on. It’s anything that could be considered as copyright-able work or intellectual property (IP).

What’s less clear is the state of your rights relating to data that is “about you”, rather than supplied by you. This is data that is created by your presence or your social proximity to Facebook.

Examples of data “about you” might include your browsing history and data gleaned from cookies, tracking pixels, and the like button widget, as well as social graph data supplied whenever Facebook users supply the platform with access to their phone or email contact lists.

Like most internet platforms, Facebook rejects any claim to ownership of the IP that users post. To avoid falling foul of copyright issues in the provision of its services, Facebook demands (as part of its user agreements and Statement of Rights and Responsibilites) a:

…non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.

Data scares

If you’re on Facebook then you’ve probably seen a post that keeps making the rounds every few years, saying:

In response to the new Facebook guidelines I hereby declare that my copyright is attached to all of my personal details…

Part of the reason we keep seeing data scares like this is that Facebook’s lacklustre messaging around user rights and data policies have contributed to confusion, uncertainty and doubt among its users.




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It was a point that Republican Senator John Kennedy raised with Zuckerberg this week (see video).

Senator John Kennedy’s exclamation is a strong, but fair assessment of the failings of Facebook’s policy messaging.

After the grilling

Zuckerberg and Facebook should learn from this congressional grilling that they have struggled and occasionally failed in their responsibilities to users.

It’s important that Facebook now makes efforts to communicate more strongly with users about their rights and responsibilities on the platform, as well as the responsibilities that Facebook owes them.

This should go beyond a mere awareness-style PR campaign. It should seek to truly inform and educate Facebook’s users, and people who are not on Facebook, about their data, their rights, and how they can meaningfully safeguard their personal data and privacy.




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Given the magnitude of Facebook as an internet platform, and its importance to users across the world, the spectre of regulation will continue to raise its head.

The ConversationIdeally, the company should look to broaden its governance horizons, by seeking to truly engage in consultation and reform with Facebook’s stakeholders – its users — as well as the civil society groups and regulatory bodies that seek to empower users in these spaces.

Andrew Quodling, PhD candidate researching governance of social media platforms, Queensland University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.