Press release: 'We must not leave the welfare and woe of democracy to individual Internet companies.'

23. March 2018

In response to the recent Facebook data scandal surrounding Cambridge Analytica, the expert panel "Forum Privacy" calls for more effective consumer protection, regulation and education.

As recently announced, the data analysis company Cambridge Analytica has illegally spied on 50 million Facebook profiles. Cambridge Analytica was responsible for much of US President Donald Trump's election campaign. "Cambridge Analytica's illegitimate analysis of 50 million Facebook profiles and the resulting distortion effects in the American presidential election campaign show how great the potential for influence that the Internet giants and the data industry associated with them have become," says Dr. Carsten Ochs, sociologist at the University of Kassel and member of the research association "Forum Privatheit". However, it is not yet clear to what extent the spying of profiles actually influenced the election campaign. "However, there are studies that suggest that micro-targeting, which is made possible by data analysis, can be used successfully and on a massive scale to influence and control behaviour," said Dr. Thilo Hagendorff, member of the Forum Privatheit at the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities in Tübingen. "The evidence of a causal influence of Cambridge Analytica's attempts at manipulation on the presidential elections, however, is unlikely to be possible, and the psychological personality models on which the data analyst is based are - if known at all - not known for their high predictive power," adds Prof. Dr. Nicole Krämer, media psychologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, also a member of the "Forum Privatheit" research association.

Nevertheless the insight into our everyday life gives an extremely large social power abundance to the platform operators to the hand. "For regulatory and consumer protection organs it is hardly comprehensible so far, how this data-based power is used , so the sociologist Ochs. The fact that it is not even known how great the influence of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, or many other Internet companies on such a fundamental democratic process as an election was, is a clear indication of the massive need for action in this area: The potential for Internet companies to exert influence may be immense, but they have no democratic legitimacy whatsoever, and repeatedly act in a way that is difficult to reconcile with basic democratic principles. This would destroy consumer confidence and prevent sustainable economic activity.

A completely new form of consumer protection is called for

The regulation of companies has so far been difficult because they operate globally, but political and legal institutions and authorities operate on a national level. For "Forum Privatheit" it is clear that this must be a new kind of regulation of responsibility. On the one hand, data protection should under no circumstances be weakened in the draft e-privacy regulation, which at least establishes some limits to tracking and data collection on the Internet. On the other hand, such cases make it clear that consumer protection on the Internet urgently needs to be put on a new footing. This could not only concern individual consumers, but also new, collectively binding rules of the game, and the role of institutions that monitor and enforce compliance with these rules, and not only at national level. "How should individual consumers defend themselves against the superiority of corporations, especially when two companies work together undercover? If this only brings an illegitimate influence on elections into the realm of what is conceivable today or in the future, then this is already a problem for democratic society as a whole, because it destroys trust in the long term - completely independent of whether an individual uses certain social media individually or not. If we shift the responsibility to the individual, we will not do justice to the magnitude of the problem," Ochs said. On the one hand, the focus has been on individual users for too long, while it is now becoming increasingly clear that the problems need to be tackled at the regulatory, political and institutional levels. On the other hand, however, the process also indicates the great need for better information for citizens: "It is and remains a central task to inform the population about the abuse potential of data available on a massive scale - even if they are as inconspicuous as a Like on Facebook", adds Krämer.

Platforms are not a neutral infrastructure

The members of the research association "Forum Privatheit" attach importance to the fact that the Facebook data scandal is not the problem of a single provider or country, but concerns the social media and the Internet as a whole. "The knowledge that these companies generate holds control potential and thus social and political power. We have to regulate this power, just as many countries also watch over the power of individual media companies," says Forum spokesman Prof. Dr. Alexander Roßnagel. The Forum's members agree that the well-being and woe of democracy must not be left to the Internet industry and institutions that misuse the created infrastructure of digital social networks for illegitimate influence. "All those who bear political responsibility must be clear: If they continue to allow the manipulation possibilities of the Internet industry to grow unregulated, the very basis of existence of democracies will sooner or later be threatened," adds Prof. Dr. Thomas Hess, business information scientist at the LMU Munich. It is important to note that not only companies such as Cambridge Analytica have problematic data processing practices, but also social media platforms or search engine providers themselves have to be held accountable. "Facebook, YouTube or Twitter can no longer retreat to the position of merely offering neutral infrastructures without being responsible for the purposes for which they are used," says consumer researcher and sociologist Prof. Dr. Jörn Lamla of Forum Privatheit: "They themselves must have a sustained interest in ensuring that the data entrusted to them remains under democratic control - otherwise trust and thus the basis of their business are gone.

Forum Privatheit invites to a dialogue event: "What comes after Cambridge Analytica? Necessary Regulations for Consumer Protection" on 25 April 2018, 13:00 - 14:30 at the Representation of the State of Baden-Württemberg to the European Union, Rue Belliard 60-62, 1040 Brussels, with Prof. Dr. Nicole Krämer, University of Duisburg-Essen and Prof. Dr. Jörn Lamla and Dr. Carsten Ochs, University of Kassel, among others.

In the BMBF-funded Privacy Forum, experts from seven scientific institutions deal with issues relating to the protection of privacy in an interdisciplinary manner. The project is coordinated by Fraunhofer ISI. Other partners are Fraunhofer SIT, the University of Duisburg-Essen, the Scientific Center for Information Technology Design (ITeG) at the University of Kassel, Eberhard Karls University Tübingen, Ludwig Maximilian University Munich and the Independent State Center for Data Protection Schleswig-Holstein.



Speaker “Forum Privacy”:
Prof. Dr. Alexander Roßnagel
University of Kassel
Project group constitutional technology design (provet)
Research Center for Interdisciplinary Technology Design (ITeG)
Phone: 0561/804-6544 or 2874

Project Coordination “Forum Privatheit”:
Dr. Michael Friedewald
Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI
Competence Center New Technologies
Phone: 0721 6809-146

Press and Communication “Forum Privacy”:
Barbara Ferrarese, M.A.
Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI
phone: 0721 6809-678

“Forum Privacy and Self-Determined Living in the Digital World”
Twitter: @ForumPrivacy