Following Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony in the European Parliament two weeks ago, a conference held last night with influential speakers, some of whom were directly involved in breaking the Cambridge Analytica news story, in which delegates were told about the lengths to which the now dissolved company went to in order to achieve the results it was being paid to get.
Among the speakers were Carole Cadwalladr, the Guardian journalist who was one of the first to break the story, Christopher Wiley, the former Cambridge Analytica employee and whistleblower, and Elizabeth Denham, the UK Information Commissioner.
Although we have heard his story before, listening to Wiley’s account was nevertheless chilling. Cambridge Analytica took personal data from Facebook users and exploited it to skew democratic elections and referendums. Wiley described this situation as a “New Online Cold War.”
Specifically, in relation to the EU referendum, Wiley told MEPs about a tangled web of influence across the Atlantic. Both Leave campaigns were connected to Cambridge Analytica and its subsidiaries. However, Wiley pointed to possible breaches in UK electoral law, as there were connections with other groups such as BeLeave, Veterans for Leave, and even the DUP – the very party which the UK Government has formed a coalition with.
Whatever the result of the various investigations taking place into the Leave campaigns, the big tech companies will have questions to answer. It was known well before the 2016 EU referendum and US Presidential Election that Facebook users’ data could be manipulated in this way.
Cadwalladr expressed her frustration as a journalist, with the denial and lack of complete answers from tech companies – a sentiment shared by many in Brussels after Zuckerberg’s evasive testimony in the European Parliament two weeks ago.
Equally, in her view the European Parliament has the opportunity to get answers from Nigel Farage and Gerard Batten, the current leader of UKIP, who also avoid questions from journalists investigating the case.
Only the EU has the economic and political clout to take on these internet giants. From competition rules to copyright, and now to defending our democracies, the EU is able to stand up to huge companies like Google and Facebook and make them play by the same rules as everyone else.