The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into effect on the 25th of May 2018 across the European Union (EU). This law is designed to strengthen the protection of virtually all types of online data across all platforms, giving EU residents greater control over what businesses and organisations can and cannot do with their information. In Part I, we discussed the details of the GDPR and how this could change the general online landscape. In Part II, we will examine how stronger data protection laws affect social media.
How does the GDPR impact social media?
Specifically, the GDPR will affect social media in two obvious ways, one of which involves user-generated content (UGC) and the other, algorithms. In line with the overall objectives of the regulation, these changes will place greater power in the hands of individuals.
With the means of creation and distribution of content becoming more affordable and accessible, whether it be the advent of the smart phone and its high resolution photo and video capabilities or platforms such as YouTube that offer a free video publishing and distribution service, UGC has become an integral part of Internet culture and the online community. That line between content producer and consumer has never been so blurred.
The GDPR plans to protect UGC creators, making it not only a law concerned with data protection, privacy and security, but also copyright and intellectual property. With the GDPR, businesses and organisations that want to use UGC must do so with the express consent of the creator. UGC can be the lifeblood of some private firms, particularly small ones that do not have large marketing budgets, which forces them to rely on the content that is created by individuals. Or it simply could involve someone making interesting or viral content, such as a video or a photo, and a brand wanting to share it with its online community.
With confusing legal framework, historically, businesses and organisations were navigating the copyright and licensing of UGC blindly. Some may have even stolen material and used it without crediting the creator. While there is a precedent for such cases reaching the courts, often ruled in favour of the content creator, the GDPR will change the way this interaction unfolds. From May 25th 2018, businesses and organisations can no longer take UGC without fear of legal and financial ramifications. The tools and the mechanisms that will facilitate this remain unclear, but that hasn’t prevented tech companies, such as ShareRoot, from forging ahead with developing new platforms to address this issue.
The GDPR will also endow EU residents with the legal right to question or appeal how their personal information is presented by algorithms. We are living in the age of the algorithm. These mathematical-formulas-turned-computer-programs are playing an increasingly important role in our lives, with social media platforms, search engines and video streaming services employing algorithms to use data on user activity and behaviour to personalise each individual’s experience. On Facebook, every Like, Share, Comment and click is being recorded and analysed to curate the News Feed of each user. This process is dynamic; constantly updated to optimise the user experience and to maximise the platform’s commercial value.
The GDPR will not only impact the ability of businesses and organisations to collect information to use as input data for algorithms, but also their outcomes. If individuals are able to challenge outcomes, this may expose the algorithms themselves. Most of these algorithms are kept secret; recognised as the propriety information of their owners. For many social media platforms, it forms a large part of their business. With users not being privy to the mechanisms that underlie how the content they are shown is being controlled and dictated, the lack of algorithm transparency has concerned scholars and regulatory bodies, especially pertaining to the issue of discrimination within algorithms.
With this ‘right to explanation,’ the GDPR, according to Bryce Goodman and Seth Flaxman, researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute and the University of Oxford, respectively, will pose large challenges for industry. This law could force social media platforms to completely overhaul standard and commonly-used algorithmic techniques. With flow-on effects impacting the many creators who rely on algorithms to push content in front of potentially interested individuals.
The future of the Internet under the GDPR
Undoubtedly, the impact of the GDPR on the Internet, and particularly social media, will be immense. All social media platforms, most search engines and websites collect data from its users, whether it is used to generate a more personalised feed or search results with the help of algorithms or to sell to a third-party for advertising and marketing purposes. For the Facebooks, Twitters and the Instagrams, this new law will force platforms to be more transparent and explicit with what kind of data is being collected and how it is used.
So how will this impact the structure, the policies and the functionalities of social media? This raises the possibility of a multi-tiered user experience, creating an endless number of platform interface permutations. Will users based in the EU be able to tailor exactly how their social media accounts will look and function, dependent on the data they’ve allowed to be used? Will this unprecedented level of transparency drive users away from these mainstream sites and apps and towards ones that have been independently developed with privacy and security in mind, such as Signal or DuckDuckGo? Or have social media platforms become so intrinsic to our experience of the every day that it’ll just be business as usual?
With the rest of world set to follow the EU in this legislative space, it is with great interest and trepidation that we speculate and watch how the online community, on both sides, will react and interact with the new normal in which this law will usher.
Part III of our series on the GDPR, Will the GDPR Break the Internet? will explore how this legislation will affect the Australian health, medical and scientific community.