People 'have no clue' how much data Facebook and Google collect, antitrust advocate says

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Sally Hubbard (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Cliff Owen /AP, Getty Images)

Facebook and Google have reached so far into the private lives of their users without their knowledge that they are committing “a fraud on the American people,” said a prominent advocate of stricter government regulation for the tech giants.

“The amount of data that Facebook and Google are collecting about the average person is absolutely insane, massive, widespread, ubiquitous, and I think honestly, a fraud on the American people that the people don't understand that this is happening,” said Sally Hubbard of the Open Markets Institute, an organization that advocates curbing the power of monopolies.

“I think most people have no clue how much is being collected about them. I even don't have 100 percent clarity and this is something that I care deeply about,” Hubbard said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.

Hubbard said that based on her expertise in antitrust law, she believes there is “great legal authority to unwind Facebook's purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp.”

“What that would do is give users an alternative” for messaging and social media, Hubbard said.

Restoring competition to the sectors of social media, search and online advertising would do a few things, she said. It would reduce the ability of the two tech giants to act with impunity against the interests of average people, and make them more accountable to concerns about invasions of privacy.

But “breaking them up is not going to solve all of the problems,” Hubbard said.

She also advocates for government regulation that would allow Facebook to collect information on users only when they are on Facebook, and not across nearly the entirety of their internet usage.

“Most people think, Facebook knows about me the things that I've posted on to Facebook. That is a small fraction of what Facebook knows about you, because it's tracking you across millions and millions of websites,” Hubbard said.

Facebook has agreements with other websites, Hubbard said, that allow it to track user behavior on their pages in exchange for reports from the social media giant on what worked with potential customers and what didn’t. These third-party websites can then advertise more effectively — on Facebook — to potential customers.

“If you have the [Facebook] app on your phone, it's tracking your physical location. It's making all the connections with who your network is, the people in your network,” Hubbard said. “It's buying data from data brokers and combining those offline purchases” to create a detailed profile of each person on Facebook.

A German regulator ruled in February, however, that Facebook cannot collect user data from third-party websites in Germany. Hubbard testified before Congress in June in favor of stricter regulation.

Each website “would have to compete with each other with only the data they have on each user from a first-party relationship,” she said in her written testimony.

“For instance, the New York Times can segment and target its readers with ads, but only based on their use of the New York Times apps and website. Facebook, however, could not individually target users with ads based on their purchase of Mastercard data, or their acquisition of data through social plugins on third-party sites,” she said.

And even though Facebook has been in the news a lot, Hubbard said, “Google actually, according to private experts that I talk to, knows even more about us than Facebook does.”

Of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has staked out the clearest position on it. She came out in March with an aggressive position in favor of breaking up and regulating big tech.

Hubbard said there are a few pressing reasons to curb the power of Facebook and Google.

One, their dominance gives them so much power over online advertising that it is killing journalism, critics say. This was the point of the congressional hearing in June.

“Free-riding by the dominant online platforms has resulted in a massive siphoning off of profits, such that the lion’s share of online advertising dollars generated off the back of news content goes to the platforms, not to the content creators,” David Pitofsky, general counsel of News Corp, which owns the Wall Street Journal and other media and news entities, said in his written testimony for the hearing.

News publishers often have no choice but to try to reach readers through Facebook and Google. But Facebook is making it more difficult to leave their pages and go to another site, Hubbard wrote earlier this year. And Google is often surfacing copycat articles higher in search results than the original pieces done by journalists who did the work of collecting the information in the first place, creating perverse incentives for news organizations that are bad for democracy, Pitofsky said.

“The platforms are creating walled gardens that tighten their stranglehold over advertising dollars and consumer data,” Pitofsky told Congress.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., has introduced a bill to give news organizations the ability to bargain collectively with the online giants to garner concessions and try to level the playing field.

“Is it worth risking democracy for slightly more relevant ads?” Hubbard said.

The second major concern Hubbard cited with Facebook and Google’s dominance was the ways their surveillance capabilities could be used and abused by the government.

“Whatever private companies build for surveillance purposes, eventually, the government will co-opt it. It's very politically dangerous,” Hubbard said. “If you start to curb the data collection … it would … protect people from having their privacy invaded and protect us against potential political oppression based on our beliefs.”

She cited a New York Times investigation in April that found that in some states, Google has begun to share location data from people’s cellphones with law enforcement officials seeking to solve a crime, even if these people have not been charged with a crime.

“Whatever tools private industry builds for surveillance quickly become a tool of the government,” Hubbard said. “I do think it's tremendously dangerous, because surveillance has been used throughout history as a tool of oppression.”

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