Property Rights and Data
As most people know, when users of Facebook sign user agreements, part of that agreement is a relinquishing of rights on the data users produce while interacting on the site. The resale of that data is how Facebook and Google have become so rich and powerful. The advertising industry pays huge dividends for the data companies can gather.
For many years now, technology companies have been shifting their business models from advertising to the collection and sale of user data. Though this business model is new for tech companies, it is not for the advertising industry. Targeted ads have always existed – companies have always sought the advice and impressions of focus groups, assembled to reflect the product’s target demographic. It’s quite logical then for these companies to pay for the counsel of digital focus groups – hand selected users that are mostly likely to buy the product.
Facebook is a highly successful private for-profit company. Before we examine the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal, it’s worth asking ourselves; what is user data? What are the legal precedents outside the digital sphere for the rights to this special kind of property? If you spoke audibly in a restaurant or on the street, you’d actually have no right to control that “information.” If you tell someone that you like running, branded shoes and the Nike brand, the fact that you like those things doesn’t belong to you. As a legal precedent, your thoughts once spoken are not your intellectual property.
Most people understand this, but when we are inside our own homes, we have a sense of privacy that we expect to apply to all of our activities. The flaw with that expectation is that privacy is not the norm with online interactions. The Internet is a public space and most websites are private spaces belonging to private companies, not the public. So my initial question is:
Why are we expecting rights that we don’t even have in public to apply to quasi-public spaces that we have to sign agreements to participate in?
I think ordinarily, we wouldn’t expect those rights to apply. We don’t bat an eye when, after having a conversation about jogging within earshot of a phone, all of the ads are tailored to jogging the next time we open Google. Yes, we mention how creepy it is that the software is always listening, but we don’t get upset the way people have with CA. Google doesn’t get sued for selling that data to Nike. The level of public outrage directed at CA doesn’t, in my estimation, proportionately reflect what that firm has been accused of. To be blunt, I think the difference is Donald Trump, and if CA had been working for a different politician, it’d be a safe bet that there would be no such scandal in the media.
The Distorting Influence of Partisanship
This puts me in a predicament.
Do I report on the real CA story, filled with partisanship and theatrics that have very little bearing on our political life?
Do I remind readers of the fact that all politicians with enough money buy the services of one or another of these advertising companies?
Do I report on the real issue, the zeitgeist that this narrative has contorted to partisan ends: That we distrust advertising, lack faith in the demos in its ability to withstand sophistry and clever tricks, and that we would like a legal rearrangement of property rights regarding data?
Or do I tell a story that will inflate my own worth and virtue among fellow leftists: That the Trump administration, for this reason among many, is illegitimate?
There are a lot of reasons this situation is relevant to modern politics, but to make this story of advertising and property rights into a story about Steve Bannon, Donald Trump and CA seems totally disingenuous.
I am personally disgusted by the rhetoric I see around this issue, and as someone who actually cares about truth. I don’t care if an ad is targeted or not and I don’t care if politicians are making direct sales pitches to voters. Lies cannot be tolerated in politics, but telling people popular truths or rhetoric doesn’t constitute a crime or violation of anyone’s rights to me. I haven’t seen a case arguing that what CA did is any worse than what most other political advertising companies do. No one has bothered making that case, because CA’s real crime in the court of public opinion was working for Donald Trump.
Strangely, the “crime” CA was initially accused of has almost nothing to do with the rhetoric around “culture wars” and “stolen elections.” It was for failing to properly delete user data. That has little bearing in the current case in Australia against Facebook for selling the data to CA in the first place, but it’s important to understand how we’ve gotten to this point.
Different outlets have sounded alarm bells for different reasons throughout the scandal. The “whistleblower” who brought this all to our attention in the first place, Christopher Wylie, claimed that CA’s crime as a company was failure to secure and delete data. When given a platform, he immediately shifted the conversation to accusations of political meddling, and of allying with Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. Media outlets amplified it.
The “whistleblower” activist quite obviously didn’t care about the security of user data. Rather, he was upset that his efforts in his company were eventually sold to the successful Trump campaign. It’s obvious to me that Wylie would not have done what he did if it was the Clinton campaign that had hired CA in 2016.
I can marvel at the fact that the accusations levelled at CA and Facebook bizarrely don’t match up with the level of public outrage we can see. However, it is more sad than bizarre, that so many people seem to care more about their party and lifestyle, than the health of democracy. Trump is a polarizing figure, but that is all the more reason to focus on weaknesses in our democracy, rather than trying to attack him or his campaign. In that vein, I could scarcely imagine a more polarizing figure to “break” this news to us than Christopher Wylie. Wylie went on TV with pink hair and a septum piercing and claimed that this ad campaign was a declaration of war on the American people.
If we care about polarization, we should be focused on political issues that unify people and stop attacking any side or at the very least, offer concessions. In this instance, that would look like starting a broader conversation around political advertising. It must cover what one thinks is wrong for either side to do, rather than the wrongs that the other side can be found more guilty of.
For the record, I don’t see any evidence the Trump campaign was exceptionally guilty in this regard.
A Healthier Conversation
Let’s pretend that, instead of presenting hyperbole about war and Bannon, Wylie came to us with evidence of both the Clinton campaign and the Trump campaign using ads during their respective runs for presidency. Let’s pretend that he asked us, “are these ads hindering democracy?” and explained his concerns.
If he did care about democracy and the country, he might have said something along the lines of: “I think that politicians need space to articulate their platforms and reach out to voters in ways that voters can understand, and connect with. That means targeting ads to them. However, I think that there must be a limit on this; I think that after enough careful study, people can be played like fiddles. We must put some protections on either the studying of unsuspecting citizens or on the type of communication actors with that information engage in.”
Let’s have that conversation! I agree with this version of Wylie. I hope that the contrast between this fictitious version of Wylie and his actual rhetoric helps illuminate my point about partisanship. I’ll throw my hat in the ring by being the first to respond to this corrected version of the narrative. To this Wylie, I would say, “there is a time and place to be a salesman, elections being one of them, but I agree that we should not have a system where clever people manipulate less critically engaged people.”
Solving that issue requires revitalizing democracy in all the familiar ways: Improving education, increasing focus on critical thinking and depolarizing politics. To me, democracy is about trusting your compatriots and humbling yourself as just one citizen with just one vote. If we can’t trust our fellow citizens to think for themselves, then we should be having a conversation about that. Who doesn’t deserve the right to vote? Who is going to put blinders on voters to avoid them being misled, and under what circumstances? Are our selves impossible to deceive? Are we going to ban dishonesty and lies in elections? I know we normally have very broad protections on free speech, except in instances of violence and slander, but I wouldn’t have a problem with people being sued for dishonesty during election season.
With all of that said, the marketing industry is the elephant in the room. I do find it irritating I have to dig through so many layers of hyperbole about culture war and disingenuous concern about data rights before I can speak about what this conversation is really about.
We are afraid of these powerful marketing tools. We are only just realizing how profoundly public relations, marketing, and increasingly, psychological operations, have shaped the social and political world we inhabit. We are worried that elite forces have used these tools to become more adept at navigating and responding to politics than the demos, and we worry that a plutocratic class is entrenching itself with these tools. We worry that our relationship to those industries and that class is increasingly characterized by subordination and lack of control.
I think this is the zeitgeist that Wylie and the democratic media have seized on to strike at their conservative compatriots. But we would do well to resist urges to attack people with a different, but equally valid vision of America. We should not engage in “culture wars” as Wylie puts it. Instead, we should understand why the concerns I just articulated are present in the collective unconscious. We leftists should craft policies and rhetoric that directly offer solutions to those issues, rather than using them to play the corrupt game of obfuscation and hyperbole to suit the agenda of a particular moment.
Reflecting on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for presidency, it’s easy to see that our response to these issues was inadequate. Time will tell if the left is up to that challenge in coming years.