The Facebook Debacle and the “Own Your Data” Movement

The world media was recently rocked by a data breach scandal involving Facebook. This scandal wherein Facebook had allowed a third party named Cambridge Analytica to misuse the information of its users created a ruckus. Various campaigns broke out, and activists wanted to ensure that the integrity of the user’s data was not compromised by big tech firms like Facebook.

One of the suggestions provided by activists was that the ownership of the user’s data should lie with the users themselves and not with companies like Facebook. If the ownership lies with the users, Facebook would not be allowed to transmit this information to other parties without the user’s consent. Also, Facebook could share monetary compensation with the users in order to convince them to share some of their data which may not be very intrusive.

There was a widespread belief that this legislation would be able to solve the problem related to data misuse by tech giants. However, it turns out that this problem is not so easy to solve. In this article, we will have a closer look at why the “own your data” movement is not a feasible option.

The Current Situation

At the present moment, Facebook owns all the data that its users generate on its website. This means that the images, content and even contacts that you have on Facebook are actually legally the property of Facebook. This is mentioned in the terms and conditions of their agreement which users generally do not read.

At the present moment, this also means that if users delete their personal information from Facebook, the company does not necessarily have to delete it from its own servers. Hence, you could log off Facebook, and the company would still have access to some of your private data for some time.

The Problem With Own Your Data

The concept of ownership is derived from the physical world. Goods are owned by people. Ownership means the exclusive right to access a property. This means that others are not allowed to access the same property. However, information transmission does not follow the same rules. When information is transmitted, a new person or entity now has access to that information. However, that does not mean that the old entity ceases to have access to that information. The concept of ownership is therefore difficult to enforce when it comes to data. Even if the government does create laws restricting the transfer of data and giving ownership rights to individuals, this right will be impossible to enforce in real life situations.


Laws need to be implemented by a certain court. For this, it is important that the issue should be under the jurisdiction of a particular court. The problem with the internet is that it has no boundaries. This means that information can flow freely to one or many countries across the world. As a result, enforcing an “own your data” policy would mean getting all other countries on the same page as well. Otherwise, tech firms will just move their operations to another company where it would be legal to collect and mine consumer data. Any legislation is likely to be extremely complex because it will have to supersede a complex web of regional, national and international legislations. The decisions taken by the courts will not be enforceable because the offending party may not be physically present with the jurisdiction of the courts.

Free Speech

Most democracies across the world believe in the concept of free speech. However, the problem is that privacy laws are opposed to the concept of free speech. Privacy laws restrict what can be spoken and written about. Hence, privacy laws can also be used as a shield to censor free press. This is the reason why Supreme Courts around the world are unlikely to enforce stricter privacy laws even after the Facebook debacle.

How Can This Issue Be Resolved?

The data privacy issue is built into the business model at Facebook. This is because the company has no other source of revenue apart from selling the information of users. Hence, if users really want to get rid of the privacy issue, they should urge Facebook to provide them with an ad-free model. Many companies have a “freemium” model. As per this model, users are given a choice as to whether they want to see display ads or not. If they are willing to tolerate display ads, they can use the service for free. However, their data becomes the property of the company. On the other hand, they can pay a fee and prevent the company from using their data or seeing any advertisements.

At the present moment, the focus is on ensuring that Facebook does not toe the line. However, sooner or later, the company may be found trying to harvest the data in a way which many consider unethical.

Also, one needs to remember that Facebook is a big and powerful corporation with deep pockets. Given their ability to buy influence in Washington, it is highly unlikely that there will be any significant changes to the company’s operating model. However, incidents like these are definitely creating a negative image for Facebook.

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