Cambridge Analytica’s data breach, which has compromised at least 87 million Facebook users’ personal information,(1) has taken the internet by storm this week, causing many to vow to stop using the platform.
The breach also included harvesting people’s personal messages, which has awakened the current conversation about privacy and caused Congress to call Mark Zuckerberg in to testify.
While this entire situation is extremely serious and calls for a critical look at how businesses can use our personal data, the Congressional hearings further illustrated how out-of-touch our representatives are with the current age in which we live.
It was quite astonishing to watch Mark “explain the internet” to U.S. senators. Questions included asking how Facebook sustains a business model in which users don’t pay for the service given and if messaging through WhatsApp is also providing Facebook’s advertisers with data.(2) While the answer to these questions may seem obvious to many of us, these misunderstandings about how the internet works are what have led to a disconnect between what the government and what its citizens expect from each other. These senators’ evident lack of understanding of the internet is only one piece of the much bigger problem at heart.
This is reminiscent of the recent struggle about Net Neutrality and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s attempts to take away Americans’ (and really everyone’s) right to a free internet, for the sake of protecting big corporations and other lobbyists.(3)
However, this all begs the question, “can our data ever be fully protected?” When we choose to use these platforms, free of charge, are we forced to give up our privacy? Should we be forced to give it up?
Maybe we shouldn’t depend on our representatives, many of whom do not wish to protect their citizens’ right to a neutral web, and work together, at the grassroots level, to tackle these issues. However, while these matters might be shocking to those living in developed countries, across the Middle East, many citizens already do not have the luxury of net neutrality.
The most famous example that comes to mind is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s blocking of Wikipedia in Turkey. In Morocco, the major telecom company, Maroc Telecom, tried to block people’s use of WhatsApp because it wanted citizens to call using their credit, not a free app. The latter attempt didn’t last long because people rose up and protested. Turkish citizens have also been protesting and calling against their government’s breach of net neutrality.
Our right to the unrestricted use of the internet should now be upheld as an absolute requirement that all governments must abide by. Just as international development organizations create programs to protect all citizens’ right to freely protest and live their lives without fear of unfair encroachment by their governments, the right to the unrestricted use of the internet, without the unauthorized use of our personal data by corporations, must also be defended.
In the Middle East, governments’ fear of the internet began during the Arab Spring of 2011, when videos of protesters across the region making their demands heard were posted on various social media platforms,(4) including Facebook. Many of these countries made it difficult, not only for journalists to report on the protests, but also for many international development organizations to do their fieldwork. When some of these organizations did get access to the countries where the protests were taking place, their staff members were either jailed, tortured, or both (Al Jazeera’s 2 employees, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, experienced this in 2015).(5)
It was these posts by average citizens on Facebook, among other social media platforms, that shed light to the outside world on the struggles that they were facing. Without net neutrality and without the protection of our freedoms on the web, we may remain ignorant to the strife of our fellow citizens across the world from us.
(4) The most famous slogan was first proclaimed on the streets of Tunisia: الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام (The people want to bring down the regime)