Dr Dan Boucher was the Conservative candidate in Swansea East at the 2017 General Election.
It has not been a great year for Facebook: the Cambridge Analytica scandal, accusations about conveying disinformation and fake news, and the refusal of Mark Zuckerberg to appear before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee have done nothing for its reputation.
Such is the level of frustration that representatives from nine different parliaments have come together to form an ‘international grand committee’ to call on Zuckerberg to give evidence. He has again refused to attend, sending instead a representative, Richard Allan, Vice President of Policy Solutions, Facebook. Allan will be cross examined by the committee in Westminster today.
One of the central challenges relating to the growing power and influence of social media providers is how they use our data.
The interim ‘Disinformation and Fake News report’ of the DCMS Select Committee looked at, among other things, the ‘definition, role and legal liabilities of social media platforms.’ The report expresses real concerns about privacy, and says that social media companies ‘give users the illusion of having freedom over how they control their data, but they make it extremely difficult, in practice, for users to protect their data. Complicated and lengthy terms and conditions, small buttons to protect our data and large buttons to share our data mean that, although in principle we have the ability to practise our rights over our data …in practice it is made hard for us.’
At the root of this lack of effective control over our data is the fact that the business model in question is predicated on assumptions associated with the re-emergence of what in practice is barter economics.
I well remember that on the occasion of my very first A-Level economics lesson, my teacher briefly observed that early models of economic transactions were based on barter before we moved to a money-based economy. In two years of economics teaching, he never returned to the subject and I can’t recall it coming up at university even once.
This lack of regard for the barter economy now seems strangely misplaced. At first glance, the fact we can all access social media services free of charge seems like a great boon for the consumer. It isn’t very often we can get something for free! Of course, there has to be a catch and the catch is that in return for the free service, social media providers get to harvest our data, which then enables them to target advertising at us from which they make a lot of money. The service user thus effectively trades his or her data with the company in return for use of the social media platform in question.
How should Conservatives respond to this re-emergence of barter economics?
In wrestling with this question, one inevitably turns to the historic approach of Conservative social reformers to barter. Although the sense I got from my very first economics lesson was that barter was replaced by money many hundreds of years ago, the truth is that it was actually a feature of economic life even during the nineteenth century through the ‘truck system.’
That great Conservative social reformer, the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, was particularly critical, observing that barter tended to result in transactions that favoured the powerful (the employer) over the weak (the employee), the employer providing things in return for labour that under compensated the employee. He spoke out passionately against this system and, when he acceded to his title in 1851, immediately prohibited its use on his estates.
As we reflect on the need to develop an effective regulatory system for dealing with the challenges presented by social media today, it is well worth reflecting on this past Conservative approach to barter. If we do so in the context of upholding another key Conservative value – choice – one way forward that immediately commends itself is legislation requiring social media providers to present UK consumers with an ongoing, highly visible, simple, unavoidable choice either: i) to access the service in question in return for allowing the social media company to use their data for specified money-making purposes, or ii) to access that service for a monetary fee on the basis that the company would then not use the person’s data as a means of making money.
To this some might respond by saying that legislating for the internet is not possible, but that tired old assumption has been shown to be completely without foundation, not least by the Digital Economy Act 2017. Of course, we want to keep legislation to a minimum, but limited legislation to underwrite choice in the context of the threat of more drastic legislation banning barter outright, which could then be held over the heads of social media companies if they don’t start treating people and their data with greater respect, would provide an interesting place to start.
Social media is an important part of our lives. It needs a strong foundation going forwards and this depends, crucially, on affording better protections for the consumer. This constitutes a key policy challenge and one in relation to which we as Conservatives must lead the way. We must examine the challenge from every angle, including from the perspective of the Conservative critique of barter economics and what it shows about the impact of that system on the rights of users of social media platforms.