People want online targeting to stop, says Nienke Palstra from Global Witness

December 3, 2020
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As part of an international campaign to lift the lid on data privacy violations, The Privacy Collective is asking some of Europe’s leading experts why online privacy matters. 

Nienke Palstra is a senior campaigner against digital threats to democracy at Global Witness. She talks to The Privacy Collective about the dangers of powerful technology companies being unregulated, how the public is coaxed into giving up personal data, and why the majority of people don’t agree with political targeting online.

nienke palstra

Why does online privacy matter?  

Online privacy is a fundamental human right. As a human rights organisation, we attach a lot of importance to this. People have the right to be in control of what’s happening with their information and they have a right to a private life. Our world has changed dramatically over the past decade and this is now under new, unprecedented threat. 

You have a new role at Global Witness, campaigning against the digital threats to democracy. What digital threats are we facing today? 

Big technology companies in general, and social media platforms in particular, are the richest, and arguably the most powerful companies that have ever existed, yet they are totally unregulated. We are seeing terrible harms play out for our democracies and for our rights – certainly in relation to political campaigns – when these platforms allow people to incite fear and anger that creates more division in our societies, and distribute content which is discriminatory and misogynistic. This is a new campaign for us but we felt it was imperative to get involved.

Global Witness is a little bit different from other organisations because our model is to investigate, expose and change the system. In the past, that has ranged from going undercover, doing huge data analysis exercises, and receiving leaked information. The challenge with uncovering digital threats to democracy is the black box of big technology – we just don’t have enough information about what is actually happening behind the scenes, but we hope to be able to shed some light on the tactics we believe are being used. 

When social media was first introduced, it was hailed as a great leveller and tool for democratising political debate. What changed? 

As most tools, social media platforms can be used for great good but they can be used also for terrible harms. The kinds of exposés and the rise of social movements we’ve seen online – the Arab Spring, Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo for example – are hugely important. But it’s concerning that these big technology companies face so little regulation, and any actions they’ve taken to curb the spread of misinformation and hate speech so far, are really just a patchwork of inconsistent measures that could easily be reversed. 

These platforms have such influence over how the world’s democratic processes happen. Is it right that we allow private companies to play such a hugely powerful role in our societies, when they’re only accountable to their shareholders? We don’t have enough scrutiny or accountability around this, and it’s hard to impose regulation because we don’t have a full understanding of the problem. There’s a lot more work to do to try and tackle the democratic deficits here, in terms of power, information, and what types of practices we as a society think are acceptable. 

The challenge with uncovering digital threats to democracy is the black box of big technology – we just don’t have enough information about what is actually happening behind the scenes, but we hope to be able to shed some light on the tactics we believe are being used. 

How have big technology firms – Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook – been able to collect so much data about users? Is the public aware this is happening? 

The way that we share increasingly intrusive amounts of data with online companies is because it happens so unconsciously. We want to use these tools and we don’t have time to read hundreds of thousands of pages of terms and conditions. So I think we’re all being coaxed into this system of sharing our data, which is getting monetised and sold on to other parties. I think public awareness hasn’t been great up until now, but that is changing. 

Documentaries like The Social Dilemma on Netflix, have really shone a light on this practice and the negative consequences – personal addiction, the way children are engaging online, and how elections are playing out, for example. People may ask, what’s the harm of an algorithm? But the UK’s A level issue in the summer showed what happens when you devolve that sort of decision making to machine learning. It’s an issue that’s definitely becoming front and centre in the public consciousness in many ways, which is very encouraging. 

Global Witness recently published a poll about the use of social media during the US election in battleground states – can you tell me a bit more about that? Were you surprised at the findings? 

We covered three US swing states – Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, knowing that people were being targeted in huge numbers with online political campaigns. What was so striking about the research was we found people don’t think it’s right that particular ads are only being viewed by a narrow group of people. Seven in 10 want political ads to be viewed by everyone. Half of the respondents saw targeted ads as hindering US democracy, and two thirds thought social media platforms should make it clearer how ads are being targeted and funded.  

What also really struck me is how deeply concerned people were when they were asked about acceptable methods of targeting. Almost three quarters (71%) didn’t think targeting on the basis of race should be allowed. People felt similarly uncomfortable about being targeted on how they had voted in a previous election, or on income, sexuality, or their behaviour online. What’s interesting is we know these are all standard methods of targeting. 

Global Witness is campaigning for these micro-targeted ads to be banned in Europe – how significant is it that we’re seeing progress on this issue here, rather than in the US? 

That research focused on the US, but we’re conscious that the country is going through quite a lot of turmoil right now. Instead, we’re setting our sights on Europe as an agent for change. Previous polls have shown a similar level of deep discomfort here. European politicians are watching this issue very closely in terms of what it means for the integrity of democracy and the political process. It poses a huge threat to European democracies and threatens to change the way the EU is perceived. The Brexit referendum, for example, made that clear. 

We’ve had regulations in place for offline political campaigning for a long time, but we’ve not yet dealt with the complicated issue of how to address it online. There are also big questions around the way in which these political messages are shared. It’s essential there’s real scrutiny and transparency about how algorithms work. Just saying it’s too complicated – and I think even the platforms themselves have said they don’t fully grasp it – is just not good enough. 

As well as effectively banning micro-targeted ads, the European Parliament is looking to introduce even more sweeping regulations around these platforms’ anti-competitive nature and the monopoly power that they hold. This is a once in a decade opportunity to make sure that these rules are really tight and touch on the most important issues. It’s encouraging to see one important part of the world take the first step in putting these regulations in place, and we need to make sure the bar is set high. 

Has the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe played a role in their willingness to address these issues? 

That’s where Europe has led in a huge way, and as a European citizen, I feel relieved that I’m under the protection of GDPR. It’s a really strong basis to build on but it is new and there are still a lot of grey areas where incidences that seem to clearly breach the regulation aren’t being investigated or sanctioned. For example, we have strong reason to believe that political microtargeting, in many instances, may well break GDPR because somebody’s consent will have been lost along the process. 

If that’s the case, that’s huge. This is one of the mainstream processes for the way political campaigns and online advertising happens. But national authorities need the courage and regulatory tools to be able to enforce these regulations and protect people’s rights. I think there’s also a role for civil society organisations and campaigning groups to play, by making clear what those harms are and why action is needed.

What can people do to educate themselves and protect their online data today?

There are a lot of things that people can do to inform themselves and contribute to this fight for online privacy. The Mozilla Foundation is doing great work around this, there are plug-ins that you can download to help track and reveal what is happening with your data, and watching things like Netflix’s The Social Dilemma and talking to your peers about it all helps. We need to make this more of a public conversation to galvanise people to get involved. 

 

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