05:59 GMT30 October 2020
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    On Thursday, during a meeting in the Oval Office between Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and senior officials including President Trump, a senator challenged the tech giant boss to sell off WhatsApp and Instagram, and submit his company to an “independent, third-party audit” on alleged censorship. Zuckerberg reportedly declined.

    Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley has taken Facebook to task, telling Mark Zuckerberg about the company’s structural problems, including its alleged political bias, string of privacy violations, and monopoly status, and calling on the social media giant to take action to resolve some of these issues, including, to start with, letting go of WhatsApp and Instagram. According to Hawley, doing so would help “prove” that Facebook was “serious about protecting data privacy.”

    Zuckerberg reportedly retorted, telling Hawley that the de-facto breakup “wasn’t a good idea,” with the “frank” exchange sparking renewed debate about Facebook’s immense size and power, its ability to process the massive amounts of personal data it has with discretion, and its long-term ability to safeguard users’ privacy amid a seemingly never-ending stream of data breaches and privacy scandals.

    Valid Point

    Commenting on Hawley’s challenge to Zuckerberg, Munzir Ahmad, a New Delhi-based cybersecurity expert, tech journalist and founder of internet service provider Sky Televentures, said that the senator’s request was valid, even if it was also futile.

    Hawley has “a valid point. In fact, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes thinks the same,” Ahmad said, pointing to Hughes scathing op-ed earlier this year calling on US regulators to break Facebook up amid its “unprecedented” ability “to monitor, organize and even censor the conversations” of its two billion loyal users.

    “According to Statista, Facebook now has more than 2.41 billion monthly active users worldwide. Take WhatsApp for example, this platform also has more than 1.5 billion monthly active users globally. Instagram also has 1 billion users. Now add everything and count, you will realise that how much data they have. So if any mismanagement happens, billions of people will be in danger, for sure,” Ahmad noted, pointing, for example, to the Cambridge Analytical fiasco – the 2017-2018 data mining scandal involving the harvesting of the data of some 97 million Facebook users without their consent.

    Furthermore, while US lawmakers have tried to put forth legislation to somehow limit the ability of tech giants including Facebook, but also Google, Amazon and Apple, to collect and make money from users personal data, their efforts are unlikely to succeed, according to Ahmad, since the tech companies’ profits are also profitable for the US government.

    “I don’t think the government can impose this kind of law, because Facebook revenue is not only good for Facebook, but for the government, too. Companies like Facebook and Google provide some user data to government agencies from time to time when needed…I don’t expect any privacy law that could limit companies’ ability to collect data any time soon,” the expert explained.

    Ultimately, Ahmad suggested that Facebook will continue to “do whatever it takes to keep all the data,” and certainly won’t submit to a voluntary breakup. “President Trump met with Zuckerberg and things seem good. I don’t expect any privacy law that could limit companies [ability] to collect data soon,” he noted.

    ‘Nothing is Free Online’

    For his part, Pierluigi Paganini, cybersecurity expert and chief technology officer at Cybaze, a major Italian cybersecurity services company, suggested that more than anything, Hawley’s challenge to Zuckerberg revealed US lawmakers’ “serious concern about censorship and surveillance.”

    After all, Paganini noted, the combined ability to analyse data from Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram together makes it “possible to track a detailed profile of any individual and of its network of contacts.”

    Ordinary users, meanwhile, “continue to ignore that online nothing is free; in the case of social media platforms, they are paying a huge price bartering access to social networks with their privacy,” the analyst warned.

    Paganini echoed Ahmad’s pessimism regarding the prospects of new laws to reign in the tech giants. “Sincerely speaking I believe that we are far from such a law. It will take a long time to define a legal and technological framework that could limit the abuse of users’ data for financial purpose,” the expert noted.

    According to the cybersecurity expert, it’s up to social media users themselves to organise to push for change regarding their rights to online privacy. In the meantime, privacy breaches will continue, based on new vulnerabilities, misconfigured services, etc.



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