In her policy speech on Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel delved into the scandal around Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. She argued that the current issues with regard to Facebook “are only a detail of an overarching question,” namely: How to create a “just system of the sovereignty of the individual over his or her data.” She referred to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation as a “first, tentative step.” But then she called for going much further to “make things just.”
The chancellor’s statement reflected the dominant concern Germans have about social-media companies such as Facebook: data protection and privacy. But this singular focus is counterproductive. Obviously, issues of data protection play a role when a company like Cambridge Analytica gets access to data of 50 million Facebook users. But by framing this as primarily an issue of data protection, Merkel misses both the core of the problem and the obvious remedies a democracy like Germany should pursue.
At the heart of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal are new methods of targeting digital advertising, and the role such ads play in influencing elections and political debates.
These new methods nowadays form the foundation for legitimate political campaigns as well as disinformation campaigns by adversaries such as Russia.
Regulations should make “unattributable and untrackable ads” illegal.
But this targeted advertising is not subject to targeted regulation. The now-suspended CEO of Cambridge Analytica was able to boast about “unattributable and untrackable ads” only because countries have no laws governing digital political advertising. Campaign posters and TV ads are strictly regulated. But online advertising is not. We know little about the use of targeted advertising, or about its effects.
This gives rise to all sorts of speculation, for example on how such “dark ads” decided the US election in favor of Donald Trump. These vague suspicions erode trust in democratic elections. Fortunately, there are a number of straightforward remedies that democracies such as Germany can pursue.
First, regulations should make “unattributable and untrackable ads” illegal. Social-media companies such as Facebook should be required by law to clearly mark political ads and also to publish information about who paid for the ad, how much was spent and what targeting parameters were used. There should also be a central, easily searchable repository for all online political ads placed.
New regulations should also address parties and political campaign organizations. We currently have clear transparency and disclosure rules on funding. In addition, parties and campaigns get audited for their use of funds. It is clear that for parties and campaigns, data for targeted advertising has become almost as important as money – and is bound to become more important in the future. So parties and campaigning organizations should be required to disclose the sources of data they use and the targeted advertising campaigns they run.
The real Wild West for online campaigns is in the fragile societies and political systems of Africa, Asia and South America.
Political parties should also be subject to data audits just as they are subject to financial audits. This is the only way we can make sure that shady data brokers are not the source of the raw material for political campaigns.
We also need to ensure that researchers get access to data on social advertising in order to determine the effects on voters, and the effects of disinformation campaigns by outside actors such as Russia. Social psychologists urgently need good data to study how targeted advertising works and what difference it makes.
At the same time, we also need to look beyond our borders. The real Wild West for online campaigns is not Western democracies but the even more fragile societies and political systems of Africa, Asia and South America. Cambridge Analytica, for example, also did its dirty work in Kenya, a country permanently on the verge of political violence. Facebook was also used in Myanmar, to incite violence. This should become a foreign-policy priority for Europe and the US, and a central element in an initiative to prevent conflicts.
We can deal with the problem of targeted advertising without waiting for a big, Germanic fix that would strive for “data sovereignty of the individual.” There are more pragmatic and effective steps we can take faster. Germany and other democracies should get to work.
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