Adam BalcerForeign policy project manager at WiseEuropa

The current problem with Facebook is substantially more serious than collecting data that were harvested and exploited for political gain to help Donald Trump become president. A few days ago, UN investigators said the use of Facebook played a “determining role” in stirring up hatred against Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in the summer of 2017. According to the most conservative estimates, the number of Rohingya killed in the massacres has surpassed 10,000, including at least 1,000 children under the age of five. The response of Facebook to the UN criticism sounds Orwellian: “Of course, there is always more we can do and we will continue to work with local experts to help keep our community safe.”

It is worth noting that in the autumn of 2017 Rohingya activists began complaining that the company was censoring their posts about the brutal military campaign against their conationals. Moreover, Facebook designated a Rohingya insurgent group a “dangerous organization” and ordered moderators to delete any content “by or praising” it. At the same time, Facebook did nothing with an official page of Myanmar’s military (with more than 2.5 million followers), which UN human rights officials accused of conducting a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Ashin Wirathu, an ultranationalist Buddhist monk, a main hate-preacher and a very active Facebook user, also enjoys a “freedom of speech” with negligible restrictions from the company.

UN Myanmar investigator Yanghee Lee seems to be shockingly right when she said, “I’m afraid that Facebook has now turned into a beast, and not what it originally intended.”

Katherine CharletDirector of the Technology and International Affairs Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Whether social media is “above the law” is not the right question. The data in the Cambridge Analytica case appears to have been first obtained in a manner in line with Facebook policies by an individual that then shared the data inappropriately with other parties, who in turn used it inappropriately. Beyond the question of what was legal is the question of responsible and appropriate stewardship of data. Social media companies should do more on two key areas. 

First, raising a higher bar for data use. In this case, around 270,000 people downloaded an app and gave consent to its developer to access their information. But in doing so, data on their friends—around 50 million people—was also shared. Social media companies must better help users understand and make decisions about such sharing, or shift toward an opt-in approach versus and opt-out approach. They also need to set higher bars to prevent apps from accessing excess data beyond what they legitimately need.   

Second, better enforcing the proper use of data. In 2015, Facebook instructed the individuals and companies that misused the data to destroy it and says it received certification that this happened. But Facebook did not at the time alert compromised users or independently verify that the data was destroyed. Social media companies need to view data protection as a core responsibility, not through a liability lens, and find better ways to enforce the policies that protect their users.

Cathryn Clüver AshbrookExecutive director of the Future of Diplomacy Project in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School

No—or not for much longer. Facebook and others were designed to evade the long arm of the law. For years, Facebook actively eluded U.S. laws, including the 1996 Communications Decency Act and the 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, neither of which anticipated the advent of social media. It has kept regulators at bay in part because of their lack of technical sophistication to understand its evolution into an algorithm-based, data-harvesting system. Facebook claimed to be neither an advertiser, nor a media organization, but simply a “platform”—an internet “Switzerland.” But it preyed on its users’ vulnerabilities, changing its terms of service and extracting data while we were sleeping.

With unconstrained tentacles, Facebook became the internet to millions of people around the world with far-reaching effects, including on the Rohingya genocide. Now, arguably too late, lawmakers are wising up. Zuckerberg’s preferred self-regulation won’t stand. Facebook is already losing money. Congress needs to pass the Honest Ads Act this year. Other action will follow. But U.S. and EU regulators must be wary—this area of the law will need constant updating to regulate while not harming Western competitive capacities in tech vis-à-vis the Chinese. Are today’s regulators up to that task? Highly uncertain.

John KornblumSenior counselor at Noerr LLP and former U.S. ambassador to Germany

Of course not. But social media represents a new dimension of public information and media influence that goes beyond the bounds of current media and intellectual property law. And it won’t get much better for quite some time.

The opportunities for expression and influence, legal and illegal, offered by digital media are far from having been exhausted. As political debates in Europe and the United States demonstrate, democracies are having a hard time even finding a vocabulary to describe what is going on. Authoritarian states are using technology to control digital information. Criminals are adept at finding new means of stealing and cheating over the web. Calls for new laws, treaties, and conventions will generate many activities but few results.

What is needed right now is an effort to define an umbrella of goals, principles, and values which should guide net behavior. Something like a digital Helsinki Final Act. Such a project would take years to complete, if ever. But without such a dialogue, order can never been achieved. Chaos will result.

Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Social media has been above the law and is still above the law, but bit by bit democracy and the rule of law are catching up. The raid on Cambridge Analytica’s offices will produce huge amounts of, well, “data” about how this outfit obtained the private details of millions of social media users and then sold them to political organizations to win elections or referendums.

In Europe, the different authorities responsible for tax are finally getting to grips with the massive earnings of Apple and Amazon, which so far have escaped paying the taxes that other firms selling goods or services to the public have to face.

One cannot blame the GAFA firms—Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon—for seeking to minimize tax or subsidizing think tanks and policy shapers in order to keep being so profitable.

But the law is now catching up. Too many high streets in town centers have been undermined as online orders change consumer patterns. The treatment of workers in Amazon warehouses is redolent of nineteenth century relentless factory labor, with permanent supervision and workers utterly exhausted at the end of a shift.

Privacy and citizens’ control of data is now entering European law. The GAFA belief that social media was above the law—and above social or fiscal responsibility—is over.

Jonas Parello-PlesnerSenior fellow at the Hudson Institute

No, social media isn’t above the law. The real question is what laws apply. There is both a question of data and privacy and another about election rules and social media. The Cambridge Analytica scandal highlights both.

During the outcry over Snowden’s revelations in 2013, I was surprised by the seeming lack of awareness about the massive “surveillance” already happening in private companies. We give away our personal information every second on Google, Amazon, Facebook, Uber and a plethora of other apps. The uncomfortable truth for most of us, currently incensed by Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of Facebook profiles, is that we voluntarily share our social media personalities. The answer lies in tougher enforcement on genuine data breaches. The EU stands ready with its new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which can pass heavy fines. The other solution is individual: share less.

On elections worldwide, Cambridge Analytica’s business practices, exposed by Channel 4, are plainly unethical and probably illegal. The larger question is how to safeguard democratic processes around elections from foreign interference and shady emotion-led pollsters. Regulation seems needed. Just as political advertisements were regulated on broadcast, they need to be on social media too. Russian sponsored ads on Facebook during the American elections in 2016 underlines the necessity.

Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations

It indeed was, until the 2016 American presidential campaign when then president Obama made the fateful decision not to divulge the intelligence about Russia meddling in the U.S. debate. Then Russiagate surfaced, Mr. Mueller got involved, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg became world famous and its leaders were indicted—and Cambridge Analytica and Facebook realized how easy it could be for Big Tech to became the next bogeyman after Big Oil and Big Tobacco.

Facebook is now being investigated by federal agencies in America, by state authorities in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and in the UK. In May, Europe will unleash a new set of digital privacy rules that are so strict it’s already being criticized. The honeymoon is over. Big Tech will be regulated and tamed like Standard Oil or AT&T. The next problem is: Will the new, stern laws prune too much and dry up the energy, creativity, and ingenuity that the web has spurred? Can Bad Data pass through a credibility sieve without censoring Good Data?

Joseph VerbovszkyStrategic analyst at RUAG Schweiz AG

No, social media is not above the law. Net neutrality, for example, is made possible by the law. Likewise, in cases of potential censorship, it is usually states that impose regulations on social media. Germany, for example, requires Facebook to remove certain forms of hate speech.

The more interesting question may be how social media relates to political power. Social media platforms are systems of knowledge. They compile information that is much more comprehensive than many government databases. In the political sphere, knowledge is power. It enables influence and even the control of populations. What we may be seeing is the politicization of social media. This can become dangerous because in a confrontation between state power and social media, one will likely subordinate the other.