Facebook and the ‘phenomenon of trust and ignorance’: La Trobe

Internet giants have too much control over society, economy, and democracy, a La Trobe Law School cybersecurity associate professor has said.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

From the beginning, there has been an "astonishing inattentiveness" about what could happen if global tech giants were "left alone to accumulate enormous amounts of power", the coordinator for the Masters of Cybersecurity at La Trobe Law School has said.

Speaking at the Law and New Technologies conference in Melbourne, associate professor Sara Smyth said that while it is known the majority of the internet is controlled by a small number of global tech giants, with the four most influential being Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon, it is rarely clear how exactly they operate.

"These organisations cultivate monopolies, they covertly influence our behaviour, they give some types of information preference over others, and they secretly disclose our information to other entities," Smyth said.

"They've done this for many, many years with virtually no oversight, no transparency or informed consent, irrespective of what they choose to disclose to the public."

Smyth argued that these internet pioneers have stifled innovation and hurt small business by bulldozing the competition and using people's private information for profit, describing Silicon Valley's penchant for creating monopolies and nurturing "rampant entrepreneurship".

Saying that as many as 60% of Americans get their daily news from scrolling through Facebook, she said it is a "phenomenon of trust and ignorance".

"In retrospect ... it's clear now that we have invested far too much trust in these high-tech giants like Facebook, and that we've given them too much power over our economy, over our society, and over our democracy," she said.

Read also: Uber and Facebook: Partners in crime

Following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Smyth said the public and governments have woken up to the privacy issues, and are finally beginning to discuss the consolidation of power among tech giants.

Since then, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg appeared before almost half the US Senate a year ago, answering questions on data protection and privacy; "the first real public debate about these rampant data sharing and collection practices", she said.

Of late, there has also been increased harmonisation and cooperation to combat cybercrime and data misuse, she said, pointing to the EU's GDPR as an example.

However, she said this also means large, private corporations are simply relocating their headquarters to jurisdictions where they can evade such laws and regulations.

"The most prominent online service providers are based in the United States, and this is in large part because of the lax privacy and data protection laws that have made the US a safe haven jurisdiction for those who want to provide a ready platform for controversial and political speech, and a legal environment that is freely open to free expression," Smyth argued.

With Democratic candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren proposing for large companies such as Facebook to be broken up, Smyth told ZDNet that she did not know whether such an approach would work.

"Breaking up monopolies is not a new phenomenon, but we've never seen it applied in this context," she said, adding that she has no doubt Warren would proceed with the approach should she be elected.

Read more: Facebook data privacy scandal: A cheat sheet (TechRepublic)

However, she called Zuckerberg's argument -- that breaking up Facebook would only result in competitors from foreign nations taking hold -- "laughable", due to recent findings that Facebook and Twitter may have been responsible for the spread of misinformation from foreign entities during the 2016 US election anyway.

Speaking on the spread of fake news and the dissemination of misinformation across social media, professor of cybersecurity at Deakin University Matthew Warren said that ahead of the 2019 Australian election next month, he has seen only fake news from two sources: The Labor and Liberal political parties while speaking about each other.

"Fortunately, we're not a victim of fake news attacks from the other side of the world," he said.

Civil liberties at risk by rushing through cyber laws: Online Hate Prevention Institute

Also speaking on government involvement, Dr Andre Oboler, managing director of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and lecturer in cybersecurity at La Trobe Law School, said that such intervention has seen politicians become too focused on safety, which can result in them giving up civil liberties too readily.

Oboler pointed to rushed laws and a lack of consultation, and even "sham consultations", where the government has not bothered to consult with its own local communities but only with foreign governments that have consulted with their people.

"The government here [in Australia] is talking to the UK, the US, and elsewhere, and those governments are talking to civil society -- that's not the same as talking to our own civil society," he said.

"Firstly, because that doesn't address the perception problem, but secondly, we actually have different values. The US and the UK have different values. If we're not talking to people here, we're not going to solve our problem."

For instance, Oboler said that in the US, the general attitude has always been to distrust the government, and to view it as being ignorant about technology.

Tech companies often feel disdain towards government inquiries because they don't have the technical knowledge to contribute to the discussion, according to Oboler.

As a result, he said tech companies send their PR people or lawyers to these regulatory discussions, who are briefed to just say that "it can't be done".

Such discussions are therefore more about lobbying and managing relationships between tech giants and governments rather than resolving security and privacy issues, he said.

Emphasising the power civil society possesses over regulatory bodies to influence the discourse behind privacy and online safety, Oboler said that following Sunday's terrorist attack in San Diego, it was he who found and reported a related manifesto on 8Chan and PasteBin.

"Sitting in Melbourne ... sitting in Australia, I was able to get those two things taken down. That's not government, that's not the e-safety commissioner, that's an NGO with a budget of I think we were under AU$30,000 this year," he said.

"That's what civil society can do."

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