a sanction for the collective good?

2023-05-26 10:42:00

The Meta group was sentenced this week by the Irish Data Protection Commission to pay a €1.2 billion fine for breaching European data protection rules (GDPR). If Facebook’s parent company announced to appealthis decision possibly represents a turning point in a very long story that goes far beyond the case of Meta and could allow us to regain control of these networks.

The decision of the Irish authority is historic firstly because it finally confirms the inevitable conclusion of the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013: the data of Europeans cannot be exploited in the United States because all the guarantees for the protect them from uncontrolled exploitation by the American intelligence services are not met. This conviction therefore has a direct impact in reality on all the companies which, like Meta, would have continued to operate such data transfers from Europe to the United States. This decision may also be historic in another way: it could accelerate a possible transition from social networks to other models, with a striking impact for European businesses and for citizens around the world.

What scenarios are opening up to Meta, to the United States, to Europe, to businesses and more generally to us? At least four different scenarios can be considered.

The least probable: the guarantee of fundamental rights

A first scenario would be for the United States to put in place a control system for its intelligence services that is compatible with our European principles. A new agreement on the transfer of data could then be concluded calmly. This would be progress for fundamental rights, which would have to be assessed with measure and precaution, but progress all the same.

Unfortunately, that seems quite unlikely today. While a new transatlantic deal is well sought after, it doesn’t seem to make shifting control over US intelligence a strong enough stalwart. This is the reason for l’opposition European parliamentarians to this new project. But let’s not deprive ourselves of hoping that things will evolve in the United States for the better.

Least desirable: regional fragmentation of social networks

A second, rather extreme scenario would be for the Meta group to develop a new European social network, independent of Instagram and Facebook and whose European data would not be processed in the United States. This solution is possible, we experience it well with TikTok every day: TikTok is the global version of the Chinese platform Douyin, without the two social networks being supposed to interact.

This fragmentation scenario is therefore possible but implausible. If the Great Wall of China is a historical reality, so are transatlantic communications links. This solution would be a failure for all of us, a fault line in an environment that we have built to be open.

The unlikely: the repatriation of data in Europe

A third scenario would be that the Meta group exploits the data of Europeans in Europe. This is an option also considered by Max Schrems, to whom we owe this legal crusade against European data transfer agreements in the United States. In his press release following the Irish decision, he concluded only one “potential option would be a ‘federated’ social network, where European data would remain in their data centers in Europe, unless users were chatting with a US friend, for example.”

However, this would lead to a major shift in the group’s activity in Europe and many other data than those of Europeans. This would revive investments in Europe. One could then imagine that the GDPR would indirectly make Europe the global epicenter of data processing by imposing the most restrictive standards, provided that Europe is sufficiently strong. Why not, let’s be welcoming!

The most attractive: the decentralization of social networks

Finally, a last scenario, perhaps the most desirable, extends the one sketched by Max Schrems and joins another news item from the Meta group this week. A leak has thus revealed that Meta would work on a decentralized social network integrating Instagram and a network similar to Twitter. Such a development would be quite remarkable and would greatly benefit social network users around the world.

By pushing the logic to the extreme, decentralization would really allow us to regain control of our data. Each citizen could manage their personal data as they see fit. Such an evolution would allow everyone to deploy their own social network and interconnect it with other existing social networks. All this is not wishful thinking, it already exists thanks to the ActivityPub protocol on which the Mastodon social network is based. It is also what many personalities aspire to, including Jack Dorsey, Franck McCourt and many others.

Open the horizon of social networks

If Meta chose this last option, which the group seems to be already working on, then we would see one of the largest capital-intensive companies in the world find its regulatory salvation in a free, open protocol that supports a distributed architecture of social networks. To tell the truth, the biggest social networks would not even come out the losers. To think about the decentralization of social networks is to think about the renewal of economic models today based on capturing our attention, but that won’t be able to go on like this for long.

Opening the horizon of social networks through decentralization finally means imagining the deployment of third-party applications allowing us to navigate between several networks and which can integrate a whole range of new functionalities as well as paid services why not. This reversal of history, from which everyone could emerge a winner, makes you want to believe it. Instead of centralized and monitored social networks, we could then find ourselves dreaming of openness and freedom.