Privacy Advocates Connect Capitol Attack to Need for Data Protection Legislation

iStock.com/Makhbubakhon Ismatova

Sen. Ron Wyden joined citizen groups calling for limits on data collection as a way around an impasse over regulating free speech. 

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., joined privacy advocates in marking the first anniversary of the unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol by urging Congress to pass federal privacy legislation. 

The advocates’ petition to Congress, signed by 24,000 people, is tightly focused on the role they say Facebook, now Meta, played in driving a mob of Trump supporters who tried to stop lawmakers from certifying President Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. 

The attack “put a magnifying glass on how Facebook is willing to coddle white nationalists, scammers and anti-democratic right-wing figures for Mark Zuckerberg's personal profit,” Wyden said during an event privacy groups hosted Tuesday. “The whole reason it's profitable for Facebook to ignore the blight on its site is because it can harvest vast amounts of personal information without any limits on how it uses or shares that data.”

Facebook explains that, unless specifically given permission, they don’t share users’ personally identifiable information—factors like a date of birth which hackers can use to impersonate members of the public—with third parties, but that they do aggregate other information that is useful to advertisers.

But the privacy advocates say Facebook operates a dangerous cycle of learning about their users’ interests, then using that information to expose them to content that keeps them on the platform longer—even at the possible expense of the truth or their mental well being—so they can sell more ads. 

“It's incredibly lucrative to surveil ordinary people going about their everyday online lives and the direct fruit of that surveillance is the personalized algorithmic loop of feed content,” said Matt Hatfield, campaigns director at Open Media. “That loop is custom designed to give us content that pleases, frightens or angers us individually, often, all of those things at once. It doesn't really matter to Facebook, which emotion it drives, what matters is that it's striking an emotion and we stay engaged, we stay on the platform. The goal of keeping us on the platform is really about feeding more and more data that advertisers can use into the model. The loop itself is the problem, and the loop is their business model.” 

After the attack on the Capitol last year, the debate over what kinds of content social media platforms using similar models should allow on their sites reached a fever pitch. Many platforms banned Trump himself and Republicans and Democrats both questioned what sorts of content should qualify for removal by the platforms. Hatfield said that slippery slope is ultimately not a viable landscape for policymaking.

“Just about everyone across the political spectrum right now is worried about the rise of online misinformation and radicalization, but the conversation about what to do about it is stuck between people who want the government to ban a lot of online speech, and people who want platforms to never regulate speech, and neither these models work very well,” he said. “We believe that a strong data privacy law is the solution to this riddle. It would help break the misinformation cycle without giving the government control of online speech.”

The petitioners point to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s Congressional testimony in appealing for an investigation into how big tech companies use proprietary algorithms—fuelled by data collection—to determine content.

“Election disinformation on Facebook played a pivotal role in the attack on the Capitol, and its virality would not have been possible without data-fueled algorithmic manipulation,” said Erica Darragh, campaigner at Fight for the Future. “Algorithmic manipulation is a threat to our democracy and election integrity because it intensifies the far-right extremism associated with election disinformation and the January 6 attacks.”

Wyden highlighted his Mind Your Own Business Act, which would, among much else, require companies of a certain size to assess and address the impacts of any “automated decision system,” under the watch of a more robust Federal Trade Commission.

“There's no mystery about why Facebook is siding with shady data brokers, and I'm taking them on,” he said. “As we start this new year, my own view is the first order of business in stopping Facebook is putting tough regulations on how Mark Zuckerberg’s company can collect, share, and use our data because that's the fuel that runs Facebook. That's the fuel that earns him billions. That's the fuel that harms our democracy.”

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