KATE THOMPSON DAVY: Navigating the treacherous landscape of digital privacy and policy standoffs
With lawsuits against Big Tech piling up across the globe, privacy is going to be a battlefield in 2024
Last week satirical news programme The Daily Show introduced the world to the fictional “Barnaby Durk”, Donald Trump’s overworked “official scheduler”, tasked with managing the Fake-tan Fuhrer’s legal proceedings calendar, a schedule more congested than midtown Manhattan traffic. “Sure,” he says, voice tinged with desperation, “we can put another deposition on the books, but please remind me what day comes between Tuesday and Wednesday!”
It’s a short skit and worth your time — you’ll find it on The Daily Show’s YouTube channel — but another entity that could do with such a scheduler right now is Meta, parent company of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.
On Tuesday a privacy advocacy group called NOYB filed a complaint with an Austrian regulator, arguing that the new ad-free paid subscription service from Meta Platforms amounts to a pay-for-privacy model. Meta launched the service in European single-market territories in October as a means of complying with increasingly stringent regulations in the region.
NOYB — it stands for "none of your business" — is the brainchild of a perpetual thorn in Meta’s side, privacy activist Max Schrems, who has been fighting Meta in various forms since 2012.
Also not content with Meta’s handling of user data is the Norwegian data regulator. It is charging Meta with a continuous fine (1-million kroner per day since mid-August) for data harvesting. Now that the fine has topped out at the maximum rollover period the case has been kicked over to the European data authority for possible expansion to the broader EU.
‘Designed to be addictive’ seems pretty straightforward for anything digital these days, but fair play to the states for trying to protect some actual living children from potential harm, for a change.
Meanwhile, stateside Meta is being sued in federal court by the attorneys-general of 33 states. The lawsuit landed in late October, but last week we got a peek at newly unsealed documents that accuse Meta of intentionally engineering its social platforms to be addictive to young users.
“Designed to be addictive” seems pretty straightforward for anything digital these days, but fair play to the states for trying to protect some actual living children from potential harm, for a change.
The complaint cites Meta company documents that allegedly show internal conversations about product design and harms, with staff admitting the products exploit what we know of youthful psychological traits and vulnerabilities, such as impulsivity, underestimating risk and peer pressure susceptibility.
Furthermore, The New York Times reported that Meta “received more than 1.1-million reports of users under the age of 13 on its Instagram platform since early 2019” but that it “disabled only a fraction” of them, choosing to routinely collect the personal information of these young users without parental permission and sometimes in direct contradiction to the wishes of parents.
The wealth of underage users was “an open secret” in Meta, according to the lawsuit. “Eight additional attorneys-general sued Meta in state courts, making similar claims,” CNN reported, and Florida too, on the basis that Meta misled users about mental health risks to users.
Also this week, on the other side of the world, Australia’s competition watchdog name-dropped Meta in its latest report for its digital platform services inquiry, alongside other big tech targets such as Amazon, Google, Apple and Microsoft. The Australian Competition & Consumer Commission is arguing for new competition laws to counter the expansion and power exhibited by these global giants of technology.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has it out for Meta in its latest report to end-October, urging the business to establish a fund for victims of conflicts seeming to have been fanned by Meta’s direct actions and failures. The document outlines how Meta contributed to human rights abuses perpetrated against members of the Tigrayan community in Ethiopia between 2020 and 2022, contradicting Meta’s claim to have “learned the lessons of its contribution to the atrocities against the Rohingya in 2017”.
According to TechCrunch: “The renewed push for reparation comes just as a case in Kenya, in which Ethiopians are demanding a $1.6bn settlement from Meta for allegedly fueling [sic] the Tigray War, resumes next week. Amnesty International is an interested party in the case.”
Even Russia has a bone to pick with Meta. On November 26 state-owned news agency Tass reported that Meta communications director Andy Stone has been placed on Russia’s criminal wanted list, attributing the information to the internal affairs ministry.
Quartz quotes an independent Russian news source, Mediazona, as claiming Stone was “arrested in absentia” for aiding terrorism. Although not explicitly stated in the original sources, Quartz links this to the Ukraine invasion and Meta’s decisions on pro-Ukrainian content moderation. How awkward for Russia’s staunchest critics, but accidental alignments will happen. Especially when there are just so many battles.
I don’t have a comprehensive list for 2023, but last year Meta was the subject of at least 17 lawsuits, across countries and types of courts, accused of everything from brand poaching (Meta v Meta Platforms) to violating health privacy regulations and enabling problems as diverse as false advertising, eating and sleep disorders, addiction, suicide and genocide.
That’s a lot to lay at the feet of a corporate, even one as influential as Meta. If even half of those cases have any merit, Meta hardly comes across as the social connections digital innovator it has clearly also been.
Naturally, Meta vehemently denies the majority of the claims, both in the media and in its counterfilings. Not that the devil needs an advocate, but it must be said that some cases do seem opportunistic and even frivolous. But even if we put aside apparent nuisance suits, there does seem to be a clear and coherent message from global bodies, activists and a multitude of courts — we care about privacy. We care enough to contest it.
To be clear, I only single out Meta as a handy poster child, not an anomaly. This is a message I hope Big Tech as a whole is taking to heart. The privacy debate isn’t over. Between advertising and data scraping, algorithmic prejudice and risk management, privacy is going to be a seminal tech battlefield in 2024.
• Thompson Davy, a freelance journalist, is an impactAFRICA fellow and WanaData member.
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.