Will Facebook’s troubles cost Africans?

No one wants social media firms to mine their data without consent, but greater regulation could have unintended consequences.


In April, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg endured two days of gruelling scrutiny by the US Congress. He came out of it largely unruffled. There was not much that Zuckerberg revealed that was not already known. But coming from the horse’s mouth. Zuckerberg’s responses were instructive.

“In general we collect data on people who are not signed up for Facebook for security reasons,” Zuckerberg said in reply to a question by Ben Luján, a member of Congress on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Luján replied almost in rebuke: “You’ve said everyone controls their data, but you are collecting data on people that are not even Facebook users who have never signed a consent, a privacy agreement.”

Zuckerberg did not seem bothered: he justified the act by saying it was done for security purposes. Before the hearings, it emerged that not only did Facebook improperly share the data of somewhere between 30m and 87m of its users with Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm involved in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, but that there were many more such firms and individuals doing similar or perhaps worse things.

Leader of the not-so-free world

Before Zuckerberg’s testimony on the first day of the hearings, an army of photographers took pictures of him from every angle. Not even Trump or Fed chairman Jerome Powell get that level of attention these days. Some commentators say that the most powerful person in the world may no longer be the person with the codes to the world’s largest and most lethal nuclear arsenal or the person able to sway global markets just by opening his mouth but the unassuming t-shirt-wearing founder of a social media website.

How the world has changed. Zuckerberg may have to appear before many more committees. The United Kingdom and European Union (EU) have requested that Zuckerberg appear in person before their legislative bodies, for instance.

The EU also has its eyes set on other tech firms. The EU’s justice commissioner Vera Jourova, put it this way to CNBC, an American television network, in mid-April: “I don’t have doubts that there are some bad practices among other IT providers and networks. So what I have said about GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] and our serious intention to have the data of all people protected… applies to every­body, it’s not only related to Facebook.”

The GDPR may become the global model for regulating tech firms that collect personal data and earn income by selling or drawing profitable insights from them. It is not their using of the data that is wrong but rather their doing so without the consent of the owners, who should also be able to profit if they so wish.

To his credit, Zuckerberg recognises that regulation of his service and those of other tech firms is inevitable. So he did not waste time trying to dissuade US legislators from that line of action. What was clear was that Facebook still wanted to be allowed tremendous legroom.

But judging from the many prominent people who have deleted their Facebook accounts and the scary revelations about the extent of Zuckerberg’s power, it is probably futile for him to expect any significant consideration.

Data is the new oil

In America and Europe, where Zuckerberg and Facebook are likely be regulated even more now, citizens can resort to their legal systems relatively inexpensively to seek redress and protect their privacy. But what about Africans?

One in seven Africans use Facebook. According to figures recently released by the company, of the 170m African Facebook users – about 12% of the 1.4bn users globally – 17m are Nigerians, 16m are South Africans, and 7m are Kenyans. And 94% of Africans who use Facebook log into their accounts via their mobile devices.

That number is likely to increase irrespective of whether Facebook spies on them or not. Even though it is public knowledge that Facebook is facing major inquiries over data protection, there is little chance Africans will delete their Facebook accounts anytime soon.

Unintended consequences

But should Facebook be heavily regulated and forced to offer its service as a paid utility, the number of members could be reduced. And by doing this, the American legislature and others could unwittingly stifle access to information in African countries.

Zuckerberg probably had this in mind when he said he envisages there would always be a Facebook service that is “free” – meaning funded by advertising and probably also the indiscriminate use of the free account holders’ data. In this regard, African governments should begin to look at ways to safeguard the data of their citizens. Because even as African countries still have some way to go to catch up on new technologies like artificial intelligence, machine vision, deep learning and so on, there is one resource they could have absolute control over: the data of their citizens on the internet.

The Americans certainly know its value; immigration officials can already require that visa applicants reveal their social media handles in cases where identity is uncertain and there are security concerns. Under proposals being considered by the State Department, this may be extended to most visitors.

As African authorities might be even worse than errant foreign data firms in terms of privacy and data protection, Africans would not be likely to welcome their governments developing such controls.

Prying eyes, willing minds

Actually, what Facebook is doing is not particularly new. The American, Chinese and Russian governments have long monitored the activity of their citizens both physically, via ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and on the internet. The only difference now is that a private sector player now has the power of a government. The power dynamic, favourable to Facebook at first, is likely to be increasingly less so now that its reach is now known to the legislative authorities.

But would that truly be the case? Via Facebook, the American government is able to garner intelligence on almost everyone across the world with little effort. Would any government want to lose such an advantage?

If Facebook begins to ask for money for its services, it could. This is why Facebook could get away with current and future infractions. In any case, many Africans would likely continue to sign away that privacy without a care to enjoy a service that they now need in their part of the world literally to prove that they are alive. For the many, the loss of privacy is a small price to pay.

But as Africans become richer, as it is hoped, they will be in due course begin to pay more attention to the small print of the agreements they sign so freely when joining these social media platforms. However, if Facebook and other global tech firms continue to monitor everyone’s internet activities whether they are users of their platforms or not, why should they even bother?

Rafiq Raji

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