After two days of grilling in Washington by Congressional lawmakers, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seems to have done a better than expected job of staving off any immediate government regulation of his company. And Wall Street investors seemed to agree, pushing up the price of Facebook stock. But the question remains: Is there any privacy legislation that could emerge from the Facebook Cambridge Analytica case?
The Honest Ads Act
The most obvious option for privacy legislation in the United States is the Honest Ads Act, which was originally proposed back in late 2017 by two U.S. Senators, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) and Sen. Mark Warner (Virginia). Not surprisingly, the Honest Ads Act was mentioned in Congressional testimony by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and he seemed remarkably amenable to the idea of the legislation. In fact, he promised lawmakers that Facebook was already in the midst of a revamp of data privacy policies that would go far beyond that which would be required by the Honest Ads Act.
So what would this pending piece of legislation require? The core concept of the Honest Ads Act is to regulate online political ads the same way you would political ads on TV or radio or in print. In other words, each ad would need to meet two crucial tests before it could appear on the Facebook platform – it would need to have clear, transparent disclosure about who is paying for the ad, and it would require anyone buying a political ad to provide a U.S. government-issued document to prove their identity. Moreover, this legislation would require companies like Facebook to maintain a public record of all ads from any entity spending more than $500 on ads.
The basic idea here is that such a system would prevent foreign actors from running political ads on Facebook (or any other social network) under nefarious pretexts. And it would clearly put the burden of proof on Facebook to maintain an ongoing database of ads on the social network that were intended for political candidates. And it would also cover ads related to political issues, such as gun control or immigration. This second class of ads is especially important because the conventional wisdom is that Russian propaganda outlets were able to run ads related to politically divisive topics.
So, based on this overview of the Honest Ads Act, you can immediately see what is top of mind for legislators – preventing influence and meddling in political elections. With important midterm Congressional elections coming up in late 2018, this makes sense for many reasons.
However, for anyone concerned about data privacy and the rights of users to control who has access to their data, it’s clear that the Honest Ads Act comes up short. The piece of legislation might be useful as a way to prevent unwanted political influence by foreign actors, but it does absolutely nothing to address the data of Facebook users.
The European GDPR could provide a useful template for Facebook data
So if the Honest Ads Act is not going to solve the privacy issues of Facebook users, what will? The current thinking now is that the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), scheduled to go into effect in May 2018, might provide at least a template for how to regulate user privacy. The GDPR goes far beyond any existing privacy legislation by setting up ground rules for not just what types of data can be collected and under what terms, but also how that data can be used.