As Facebook weathers an ongoing PR shitstorm composed of various interlocking crises, a number of public advocacy groups have launched a website that asks Americans to help put the screws to the tech giant.
Aptly called HowToStopFacebook.Org, the website accuses FB’s algorithms of “hurting our kids, undermining democracy in the U.S. and globally, and exacerbating discrimination.” Supported by groups like Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and dozens of others, the site references many of the talking points recently made by Frances Haugen, a former FB employee turned whistleblower who recently appeared on 60 Minutes and then in front of Congress to discuss the ways in which her former employer is hurting Americans — particularly children.
So how do we all, uh, stop that from happening? The groups suggest that we rely on Congress to pass a “real data privacy law” — one that makes it “illegal for companies like Facebook and YouTube to collect the massive amount of data they need to power their algorithms.” The website provides a signup sheet that gives visitors the opportunity to show their support for the initiative.
On its face, a federal data privacy law is a good idea — and something people have been talking about for a while. However, such an undertaking isn’t exactly a simple process and certainly not without risks. For one thing, the primary cheerleaders for a federal privacy law over the past few years have been giant tech companies — the very entities such a law would be designed to regulate. Why? Privacy advocates argue that such a law would give businesses the opportunity to do what they do best: sic armies of lobbyists on Washington to co-opt regulations and turn them in their favour.
But Congress has basically thrown up its hands and admitted it is way too incompetent and corrupt to even attempt something like basic data protections for the public. Thus, privacy legislation has pretty much been ceded to the states, where many legislatures have tried — and often failed — to cobble together their own regulations. The passage of the California Consumer Privacy Act, or CCPA, in 2018, seemed to be a sign of hope, and has provided a roadmap for other states, like Colorado and Virginia, to do the same. A state-led approach presents a much more complicated regulatory landscape for companies like Facebook to navigate, and leaves the door open for potentially more radical legislation — something good for consumers but bad for the tech industry.
Of course, a federal privacy law, were it given real regulatory teeth, could help ensure that companies like Facebook are properly restrained and cut off from their more noxious impulses. On the other hand, there’s no guarantee that such a law wouldn’t come out the other side of our very imperfect legislative process as defanged and ineffectual regulation — a law that ultimately legitimates bad corporate behaviour rather than censuring it.