Restaurants have strict standards to protect customers. Tech platforms don't

Should social media companies be obligated to put your interests first.
Jonathan Zittrain argues that social media platforms like Facebook have a responsibility to use our personal data only to advance our interests, not theirs. (Pixabay)

This story was originally published on October 26, 2018.

One of the reasons you're able to enjoy a meal in a restaurant is because you're not too worried that it's clean in the kitchen. 

That's because you know that restaurants have to meet a minimum standard of cleanliness, or risk being shut down. The restaurant is obligated to act in the best interests of its diners.   

This is one example used by Jonathan Zittrain to argue that it may be time to create a similar kind of obligation for social media platforms and other tech giants who hold our personal data.

Along with Yale constitutional law professor Jack Balkin, Zittrain has long floated the idea that today's online tech platforms become 'information fiduciaries'.

Jonathan is the co-founder of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University where he's also a professor of international law and computer science.

In the law, a fiduciary duty is an obligation to act in a trustworthy manner in the best interests of a client.

"The basic idea behind the fiduciary relationship is that the way they use that sensitive data should be to advance our interests," Zittrain told Nora Young, host of Spark,"and where their interests happen to conflict with ours, they've got to favour ours over theirs."  For example, he points out that we expect doctors to prescribe us a particular drug because we need it, and not because the doctor is getting a commission for prescribing it.

Zittrain said thinking through the lens of fiduciary duty could help shape advertising standards on digital platforms to eliminate certain types of targeted advertising on social media that he calls "unsporting."

"It's not just merely an ad that extols how much better life would be if only you drank a lot of beer," Zittrain said, "but rather it says: 'here is a person that Facebook has helped you identify who is at a particularly vulnerable moment in their life. This is the moment to give them a high interest payday loan'. That's unsporting. That crosses a certain line."   

While a move to a fiduciary approach prioritizes duty to customers over profit, Zittrain believes that public pressure could encourage digital platforms to adopt this approach.

"At least at the moment these companies are feeling the heat of public disapproval of what they're doing. Public relations is an issue for them and this is kind of the time to push them to do the right thing," Zittrain added.


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