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Rawls faces off Facebook

By John Töns

The Facebook ‘scandal’ regarding the use or abuse of private data has dominated news headlines for the past few weeks, yet there really is nothing new here. We have been – or should have been – aware that the various ‘free’ services offered do use our data to pay for that service. How often have you discovered that for weeks after you have searched for something on the internet you will see advertisements for that product pop up on your screen? It is ubiquitous, and we have become quite inured to it. So, we should not have been surprised that Facebook has been somewhat cavalier with our data. Whether we have a legal redress will be the next battle – what is the legal force of that rather densely worded legal agreement that we agreed to when we joined Facebook or downloaded any of the many apps that appear to dominate our lives?

The digital age deals with an old problem, albeit it is now a problem on steroids. The problem is simply that as society changes the law needs to catch up with those changes. It does this either through parliament or case law. If the pace of change is reasonably slow playing catch up is not a major problem, but when the pace quickens more people can be caught by the unanticipated and undesirable consequences of an innovation. In the digital age we find that millions of individuals have unwittingly been sucked into the tarpits that litter the digital world.

Yet there is a possible way out. Throughout the Western World we subscribe to one version or other of liberal democratic political theory. Not to be confused with parties that may have adopted that moniker it is essentially a political theory that good government means that the benefits and burdens arising out of social co-operation are distributed equally or if not equally at least fairly.

John Rawls was a preeminent thinker in that liberal democratic tradition. He presented us with a political conception of justice. Included in his work was the idea of public reason. Essentially, public reason argues that any justification for our laws and regulations need to be based on the idea that they are consistent with the fundamental interests of democratic citizens as free and equal moral persons.

Rawls’s aim was to bring ‘together certain general features of any society that it seems one would, on due reflection, wish to live in and want to shape our interests and character’. Throughout his life he referred to this as ‘justice as fairness’. The content of public reason for Rawls was shaped by the two principles of justice on which a fair society can be built.

So how can this help with the Facebook problem, or more precisely how can we avoid problems like Facebook recurring? As it stands it is an open question whether any individual has any right of redress against Facebook for the indiscriminate mining of their data. But we may be able to use the digital technology to prevent such problems in the future.

We are aware that there are unanticipated consequences from any initiative, no matter how well-meaning and well-intentioned some of those consequences can be good some bad. But we now have the technology that may enable us to test for those unintended consequences. To do this we need to use an algorithm to test a law or innovation to determine whether there are any consequences that can flow from the innovation that are counter to the principle of public reason. That tool to be in the form open access software so that anyone can use it. In addition, governments would need to do one more thing. It would need to pass legislation that enables people to get legal redress if the company could reasonably have anticipated that their idea had the potential to violate the principle of public reason.

Why is this likely remain yet another fantasy? Applying public reason criteria will not be limited to corporations. Governments may discover that some of their most cherished pieces of legislation will also fall foul of this criterion. The idea of giving so much power to citizens over their elected representatives may well be a bridge too far.


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  1. New England Cocky

    It has been known in computing circles for some considerable time that the development of Facebook was supported in principle and likely also financially by the US security agencies like the CIA and FBI because the personal data provided by subscribers was considered ideal reliable information for CIA and FBI security and also policing operations.

  2. Jamboree

    Yes data harvesting is supposed to be needed to anticipate ‘terrist’ operations but seems to cover too anyone disagreeing with increasing surveillance laws. There are also heavy fines now for protesting on company land, for example.

  3. diannaart

    I would like to know the why of some clickbait.

    I use Duck-Duck-go, which is probably better than Google and I clear out cookies regularly, none of which explains why Pinterest emails me with links to “crochet Star Wars figures” photos – WTF?

    I do not know if there even are Crocheted Star Wars figures, as much as I would like to put this mystery to rest, I am concerned, if I search for this, I will be bombarded with even weirder shit.

    I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned it here – Dog knows what will follow me now.

    More on topic, while Mark Z is the obvious culprit, there are plenty of others out there, who may well be even more disconnected from their actions than Mark Z.

  4. Kaye Lee


    After having a conversation about Somaly Mam and the child sex trade in Asia, I was (and sometimes still am) inundated with photos of young asian women asking me if I would like to chat. Goodness knows what the google brain thinks of me because I go all over the place researching stuff.

  5. diannaart

    Kaye Lee

    It is very disturbing to be hounded by such solicitations – at least yours makes a kind of (nauseating) sense – and you do point to the perils of genuine research…

    … right now I am thinking there are some readers here who wish they were only inundated with Crochet Star Wars…

  6. Terry2

    What I find most annoying is, having done an online search, found the product I want and bought it, I still get weeks of pop-up ads for the same product.

    As regards using and selling my personal data, I expect and demand that we introduce regulation that requires express informed consent before such data is collected and onsold : there are obviously those who are quite happy to have their personal data used and abused but we must have the right to opt-out or opt-in as the case might be before such data is used.

    I am being careful not to Google Trump as I may be plagued with ads for comb-overs and male cosmetic foundation, perhaps even lobotomies 🙂

  7. margcal

    Kudos to anyone who has read Rawls.
    The index of “Justice as Fairness” did me in, so much so that I didn’t try anything else of his. :-/

  8. Andrew Smith

    Think one would be very interested in what the EU proposes whereby the EU Data Protection Directive comes into action late May and has been on the books for two years, with strict requirements on data harvesting etc.


    Further, any regulation and controls need to be supported by education of society about personal data, social media etc., although some traditional media groups would probably like to see Facebook, Google etc. nobbled (while possibly not concerned about tax issues and privacy).

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