Long untouchable, web giants now know what it feels like to be hunted | John Naughton

Guardian Technology 10 Feb 2019 09:00
“Social media platforms will only change their behaviour when they are compelled to do so by legislation. Photograph: Observer design

The key question to ask when a shocking tragedy comes to light is this: does it signify a scandal or a crisis? Scandals happen all the time in societies. They generate a lot of heat, outrage and public angst. But, eventually, the media caravan moves on and nothing much changes.

When in 2011, for example, the Guardian printed shocking revelations of tabloid phone-hacking and, particularly, the news that reporters had hacked the mobile phone of the murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, many observers concluded that this indicated a crisis for the British newspaper industry. Initially, the signs were promising: solemn statement by the prime minister, ubiquitous shock-horror-outrage, closure of a big newspaper, a judicial inquiry – all the trappings of a democracy embarking on radical reform. But in the end, nothing much changed. British tabloids are as intrusive and crass as ever. And the industry remains “self-regulated”. It was just another scandal, after all.

For much of that period, our regulators were asleep at the wheel. And as they slumbered, some of the tech giants performed an audacious land-grab, appropriating our personal data, which they were allowed to treat as a free resource. In return, they provided shiny baubles, in the form of “free” services that delighted us, while they processed our data for the advertisers who were their actual customers. And they have been doing this unregulated for years, rather as the banks did in the years before they brought the global economy to its knees in 2008.

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