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German justice minister vows stricter Facebook regulations

March 26, 2018

"Promises aren't enough," said Minister Katarina Barley after meeting with Facebook's European management team. Barley said that users should expect more transparency and tighter controls in the future.

Katarina Barley
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Nietfeld

German Justice Minister Katarina Barley met with Facebook's European leadership on Monday, including public policy chief Richard Allan. The talks were the latest development in the fallout of revelations that data analysis firm Cambridge Analyticawas able to cull information on millions of Facebook users without their knowledge.

Barley said that in the future, Facebook's guiding principle in Europe must be "privacy by design," and that promises of tighter controls were not sufficient – perhaps a reference to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's vague vow to increase privacy during a CNN interview last week.

To that end, Barley said that algorithms would be made more transparent, and that the social media giant would have to inform every user whose data was misused either by Cambridge Analytica, or in a similar fashion.

"Facebook admitted abuses and excesses in the past and gave assurances that measures since taken mean they can't happen again," she said. "But promises aren't enough. In future we will have to regulate companies like Facebook much more strictly."

Read more: Facebook's Cambridge Analytica data scandal: What you need to know

The social media giant has found itself at the center of a public outcry after it was revealed that data research firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested data from 50 million users, ostensibly to influence votes such as the Brexit referendum in the UK and the 2016 US presidential election.

The news broke on March 17 when Cambridge Analytica co-founder Christopher Wylie gave a whistleblower's account of the company's practices to the New York Times and Britain's Observer, detailing how, beginning in 2013, the company preyed upon user's "inner demons" to send them targeted political advertisements.

Cambridge Analytica's 'Snake Oil'

However, more information has come to light showing that Cambridge Analytica is not the sole culprit in the scandal. Facebook knew for two years that the data mining firm had used the data from a personality quiz set up Cambridge University Psychology Professor Aleksander Kogan to cull information not only from the 270,000 users who downloaded his app, but also from all the friends in their network.

Secondly, massive data-exporting missions of this kind were easily done using Facebook until 2015, something the company knew full well. In 2011, the US Federal Trade Commission issued an excoriating report, accusing the company of misleading users over how their information was shared.

Read more: Opinion: While privacy concerns persist, Facebook also contributes to democracy

According to media historian Siva Vaidhyanathan, Facebook shut down it's controversial data-sharing practices in 2015 due to increased pressure from US regulators. However, Vaidhyanathan has cautioned against using Cambridge Analytica for the victory of President Donald Trump or the Brexit campaign – calling the data research firm's promises that it could sway election outcomes "snake oil."

"Cambridge Analytica tries to come off as a band of data wizards. But they are simple street magicians hoping to fool another mark and cash another check," he wrote in Slate, saying Facebook was using the other company as a scapegoat to cover up its own wrongdoing.

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Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.