Analysis

'This Wild West era's got to end': Facebook breach energizes U.K. lawmakers

It is delicious irony that to uncover some of our worst fears about online data privacy and misinformation, it took old-fashioned journalists — the venerated British press — and an equally old-fashioned whistleblower.

Media breaks through fears about online data privacy in Cambridge Analytica case where MPs, regulators hadn’t

Christopher Wylie, a whistleblower who formerly worked with Cambridge Analytica, the consulting firm that is said to have harvested private information from more than 50 million Facebook users, is originally from British Columbia. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

It is delicious irony that to uncover some of our worst fears about online data privacy and misinformation, it took old-fashioned journalists — the venerated British press — and an equally old-school method of whistleblowing.

It's not for others' lack of trying. A committee of British MPs tackling the matter has heard countless hours of testimony, including from Cambridge Analytica (CA), Twitter and Facebook.

For months, the information commissioner here has also been investigating how personal data has been used in micro-targeting of voters. Its office is looking at 30 different organizations, including CA.

This past weekend, though, both efforts were briefly superseded by the insiders, media sleuths, and the reams of embarrassing video that highlighted severe concerns about CA and Facebook — publicly shaming both companies into (eventually) trying to explain themselves.

He previously told CBC News told Cambridge Analytica targeted millions of Americans during the U.S. election campaign without their knowledge based on psychological profiles and surveys. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Indeed, in this, the era of fake news, lawmakers here may have been casually misled, and a request for access to CA from the information commissioner was flouted.

Now that there is new momentum to the fact-finding, energized lawmakers, regulators and governments here as elsewhere are eager to ride the wave. Only they potentially have the power, however inadequate, to act.

'Turning point'

"It feels like a turning point," said Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, who happens to be Canadian.

"I think when you have … so many people that are coalescing around the issue from parliamentarians, to regulators, to civil society and media, then that's when I think we'll get the public policy right."

Before them, ultimately, are (at least) two critical overall tasks: privacy and data protection, along with safeguarding the democratic process in a runaway digital world.

That will require new laws, and surveys here suggest there is a growing appetite for them. Part of the answer is a new data protection bill currently before the British House of Commons that would also give the information commissioner greater powers.

Until that happens, pushing the envelope must be done with existing, old-fashioned tools.

After days of silence, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday admitted to mistakes and said the company does have a 'responsibility' to protect its users' data. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Denham has resorted to the courts for an old-fashioned warrant to get access to CA. (Its slow progress, however, has led to an outcry about the need for swifter methods.)

And armed with the journalists' findings, the British Parliament's edgy committee on digital, culture, media and sport is now indignantly demanding another crack at questioning both CA and Facebook — this time, no less than the latter's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who only broke his silence on the matter on Wednesday.

Damian Collins, chair of the British Parliament's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, said Facebook should have taken action on the issue years ago. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"Facebook knew about this two years ago, why didn't they take more rigorous enforcement action at that point? Why do they only do it now once a national newspaper has reported it?" committee chair Damian Collins told CBC News.

"It's in the tech companies' interest to act to save themselves. First thing they [should] do: speak out and put themselves in a public forum where they can answer questions and be challenged on what they're doing. Through doing that they may reassure public once again they're in control."

In his letter to Zuckerberg on Tuesday, Collins invites him to give an accurate account of  "this catastrophic failure of process."

In a hearing on Wednesday, the committee heard from former Facebook manager Sandy Parakilas, who said Facebook had not done enough to protect against data breaches or act when they were discovered.

Russia looms large

Looming in the background of this discussion, still, is the Russia question.

A pressing issue will be figuring out how much of the failings of both CA and Facebook were a win for those who looked to influence the outcome of the U.S. election, and possibly, the Brexit vote — questions that Collins's committee is trying answer.

He says there's already evidence that Russia has tried to meddle in the Brexit vote but not yet about the extent of that meddling.

All of it leaves many worried here a year out from the official date for leaving the EU.

Liam Byrne, shadow digital minister in British Parliament, fears the worst-case scenario is that a country like Russia aligns with Facebook to amass people's personal data and change election outcomes. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

"We're super worried about an unholy alliance between bad companies and bad countries," says Labour MP Liam Byrne, digital shadow minister.

"The worst scenario is that a bad country like Russia teams up with a bad company that is amassing personal data to target these dark social ads in a way that spread division, hatred and ultimately bend the course of a free and fair election."

'Wild West era' in dispute

Byrne said there's a cross-party consensus that "this Wild West era's got to end."

That means governments enshrining in law strong digital rights that are enforceable, including ways that make it easier for citizens to take big tech companies to court, he said.

Denham said "it's not a Wild West out there." She said there are laws and regulations that apply to digital platforms and social media companies — but acknowledges they require an update to deal with "the power of technology."

"There's no reason why the principles of fairness and data protection and ethical use of data can't be transposed into the use of these platforms. And really that's why our work I think is really important — and others covering this."

That includes the old-fashioned mainstream media.

About the Author

Nahlah Ayed

Foreign Correspondent

Nahlah Ayed is a CBC News correspondent based in London. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's covered major world events and spent nearly a decade working in and covering conflicts across the Middle East. Earlier, Ayed was a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.