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Wednesday, 11 July 2018 11:03

British fine on Facebook will only evoke cynical laughter


Expectations that Facebook would be hit with anything remotely resembling meaningful fines over the Cambridge Analytica scandal have been dashed, with Britain's Information Commissioner’s Office levying a £500,000 penalty on the company.

According to  The Guardian, the company earned that amount in revenue in 5½ minutes this year. About the time one takes to smoke a cigarette. Or drink a cup of coffee.

It puts in perspective the grandiose pronouncements made overnight by IMF Bentham, a company that funds litigation — presumably to make a profit — regarding a complaint it has lodged with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

IMF Bentham's investment manager Nathan Landis was of the opinion that most awards for such offences ranged from $1000 to $10,000 - which could mean an outlay of between $300 million and $3 billion for Facebook given that the details of 311,027 Australians were involved.

The scandal around Cambridge Analytica broke in March after a former employee, Christopher Wylie, aired allegations about the company's operations to London's Observer and The New York Times.

Data was collected in 2014 by Aleksandr Kogan, a researcher, using an app that requested people to take a personality test for academic research. About 270,000 people took the test; Kogan called the app he was using “a very standard vanilla Facebook app".

Given the terms of service of the app and the existing Facebook API, the app also collected the data of friends of those who responded.

Kogan later passed on the data to Cambridge Analytica. The two newspapers reported that what was handed over was information about more than 50 million people.

The ICO has neatly ducked the issue, pointing out that since the offences were uncovered in March, they cannot come under the purview of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation which levies much higher fines for this kind of nefarious activity.

The OAIC has thus been given a way out of the situation. If the UK, where the scandal was front and centre, only asks Mark Zuckerberg to pay 5½ minutes worth of his company's annual revenue, Australia can easily get away by imposing a similar fine (at today's rates that would be approximately A$894,000) or even go as high as a million and pat itself on the back.

I have already detailed the reasons why this whole OAIC probe is a joke, so I won't belabour the point. But this continued delusory talk about fines should be stopped. Period.

Maybe IMF Bentham should consider a punt on the horses instead. Or even the weekend's AFL games if it is seriously thinking of making a buck or two.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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