Today’s outage should serve as a wake-up call to those who have their lives tied to digital platforms, and prompt us to think harder about regulation of social media giants in 2021, writes National media spokesperson Melissa Lee.
Across New Zealand and the world, something remarkable happened this morning. For the longest single period on record, Facebook’s platforms went down. Gone was the Facebook App. Gone was Messenger. Gone were Instagram and WhatsApp. Even the desktop website was out of action. Pokémon Go and a myriad of other third party affiliated applications were affected by this sudden and dramatic disruption. Advertising streams and boosted posts for business stopped. Community groups were suddenly unable to share vaccination information or foodbank updates. For a moment, many millions of people globally found themselves cut off from friends and family.
Facebook has grown into a primary means for many people to communicate and share their ideas – whether those views are right or wrong. Indeed, many consider Facebook and similar platforms like YouTube to be our new global forums, public squares for debate and free speech, with all the complex and controversial implications that raises, pitting private company policies against local national laws and international rights. Facebook and its platforms are now integral parts of the shared international documentation of human history with its posts, videos and photo albums replacing the great leather bound or wood block collections of earlier centuries. And whether they like or not they are charged with the responsibility of keeping that information, those records of human interaction and achievement safe.
The full implications of today’s outage remain unknown, but, it is amazing to think how much of our lives would be permanently lost to time were Facebook to dissolve overnight and its servers go dark. It would be like the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, but with the added feeling of a family home burning down. In some cases, perhaps even something approaching the death of a close friend. How many of us have backed up our Facebook data? The data contained in your Facebook profile has for so many people become the new family archive, the chronicle of life; it is a place where, regardless of your privacy settings, future genealogists, let alone archaeologists, will learn quite a lot about your impact on the world.
Today’s event, I hope, is a quick wake-up call to those who have their lives tied to digital platforms. It is also a newsflash for those who no longer seek out information across a range of local and international media sources but instead settle for a one paragraph summary and head for the comments section. For me, this morning’s outage, was a chance, albeit brief, to focus on returning phone calls at a more reasonable time of day instead of focusing on the stream of urgent constituency messages on my media accounts. The ongoing impact of Covid-19 and the difficulty many in New Zealand have faced navigating the information they need to do business or keep themselves safe at level three remains.
The digital revolution has now impacted, shaped and expanded our lives, our opportunities to learn about the world and our communities. But while it has given us the tools to send messages in milliseconds to friends around the world, it has also led to a diminishment in our interactions with neighbours. As we become more expressive in a digital world many decamp from their earth-bound lives and the balance between physical reality and the ethereal cyber communities we inhabit is constantly under threat.
In the Age of Sail before global travel became a normal activity people used to hold “live wakes” for their family members deciding to travel to distant foreign shores because of the near certainty they would never return home due to the possibility of death en route and the massive cost of communications and travel. Indeed, with the more recent advent of memorialised Facebook pages, instead of visiting the gravesite of a loved one we may now share a memory of them each year of their passing. A digital rose emoji to replace the peony bought at the local florist.
The impact of the potential loss of such important digital information brings us to important questions around the regulation of the great digital and technological platforms. This is an incredibly tough and complex issue that many countries have battled over in the last decade. We’ve seen the regulatory conflict reach our friends over the Tasman that ended in an uncertain truce between Facebook and Australia over its news services. Around the world there are countless lawsuits, proposed legislative initiatives and regulatory fights, some authoritarian and some encouraging of greater online freedoms. They encompass not just how these entities should be regulated but who should be in charge, the person, the organisation, the nation or the world.
I am a strong believer in a multilateral approach to the regulation of larger technology companies, particularly in relation to taxation, given the return impact that regulations could have on similar innovative companies based in New Zealand. We should anticipate that our best and brightest businesses that achieve global success pay their fair share offshore as well. I am waiting with interest to see the outcomes of the final rounds of the OECD negotiations which will have an important role in defining regulation of the sector.
Having had many discussions with the digital powerhouses of the world during my time as National’s digital and communications spokesperson I know they want to be constructive – because, of course, if they aren’t seen as reasonable and doing their utmost to be good global citizens, even where they falter, people will stop using their platforms in favour of the next innovative digital giant. You can see their thinking also in the many public submissions to recent content regulation discussions that have taken place in New Zealand around censorship and the way forward to tackling extremism online. I encourage you to take a moment to read their views.
While online harm on social media is completely unacceptable I do believe we need to remember how much these companies are already proactively tackling the issue and how much we ourselves need to also play our part to tell them when something is not right. Report tools can be found here, here and here for the largest companies and of course the BSA and other New Zealand regulators also have a role to play for more local matters that we can directly control as a part of our national sovereignty. If you are concerned about your family’s online use check out DIA and Netsafe’s tools to keep them safer on the internet.
The changing and constantly evolving way we inhabit our digital world raises countless questions of trust, privacy, rights to our own data and the future impact of how existing information about ourselves could influence or interfere with the lives of the next generation; at no other point in the history of the world has so much information about the individual been accessible and that is only going to keep growing without serious adult conversations about personal digital sovereignty in a social media world.
For now, with Facebook returned to action, our chat feeds fill once more, and we learn what damage has been done beyond the immediate stock market response, in the form of an $8.5 billion plunge, it is important to take stock, double check your passwords, ensure you have backups of those important moments in your life and, above all, stay positive that there will always be a way forward on the digital frontier.
Melissa Lee is a National list MP based in Auckland and the party’s spokesperson for broadcasting and media, digital economy and communications, and ethnic communities