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How Facebook Values Personal Data from Developing Countries

By Josh Woodard on November 24, 2016


Over the past eighteen months, Facebook commissioned a series of consultations with Ctrl-Shift that sought to answer the question: “How can we sustainably maximize the contribution personal data makes to the economy, to society, and to individuals?” The final report “A New Paradigm for Personal Data” that emerged from this exercise was released recently, and it is just as interesting for what it says as for what it omits.

What it says

The report highlights five important shifts that need to happen to realize an overall paradigm shift in how personal data is treated.

  1. From education to confidence
  2. From partial to full value
  3. From restrictive to enabling
  4. From compliance to sustainable customer relationships
  5. From good intentions to good outcomes

Of those, the one that most interests me is number two, which focuses on the concept of fair value from data.

The report talks about fairness consisting of two components: fair processes and fair outcomes. While there are no earth shattering recommendations in this section, it is intriguing that Facebook is at least starting to pay attention to the perception that an increasing—though still small—number of digital citizens have about the lack of transparency around how their data is used and the inequity of how benefit is divided from the value generated from that data.

So, the fact that Facebook is recognizing this and pulling together technology firms, government agencies, and others is a useful start.

What it omits

It seems clear to me that this whole exercise initially stemmed from the challenges that Facebook has faced in Europe around data protection, particularly through pressure and lawsuits from Max Schrems and his Europe v. Facebook group, which is why initially the roundtables Ctrl-Shift held were all in Europe.

Eventually, they did expand to include roundtables in the US, Brazil, and Hong Kong as well, but that is hardly “around the world”, as it is dubbed in the report Foreword.

Given the fact that the majority of Facebook’s users and its two largest growing markets are Asia-Pacific and the rest of the world (defined by them to be everyone not in the US, Canada, Europe, and Asia-Pacific), it is interesting that only Brazil and Hong Kong made the list of these consultations.

What about India or Indonesia, which Statista estimates to be the second and fourth largest markets in terms of users for Facebook? Or what about anywhere in Africa, a continent that surpassed 100 million monthly Facebook users in 2014 and continues to see rapid uptake?

And while I don’t know all of the 175 participants that participated in these roundtables, or their organizations, an initial read of the list included in the report appears to be very light on consumer advocates, civil society and community-based organizations, or any of the cooperative online platforms that are trying to completely reshape what ownership means in the digital economy.

It would seem to me that if one really wants to answer this question, then a fair share of representatives from these geographies and groups should have been included.

Of course, time will tell whether their interest is genuine or simply an attempt to appear to be on the right side of this growing sentiment. So while I’ll give Facebook the benefit of the doubt for now and assume that they are genuinely interested in answering the question posed during these consultations, if they are truly serious, the process is going to require significantly more inclusivity.

But then again, we don’t have to rely on Facebook to have these discussions. We can move them forward ourselves.

What are your thoughts? Do you have any interest in facilitating an independent roundtable on this topic in your community? Share in the comments below.

This post was original published on Backfeed Magazine as Facebook’s sudden interest in fair value for personal data – and why it matters

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Written by
Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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