By Swee Leng Harris , Martin Tisné and Alaphia Zoyab

Driving accountability, protecting democracy: Using data protection laws to challenge Big Tech’s business model

At its best, the online world can foster connection, creativity, activism, and enterprise. Social media has enabled lots of us to forge connections across countries and cultures, and has been the network through which powerful social justice campaigns have spread, including #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and the Arab Spring. 

However, the potential of technology to enhance culture and support cohesive societies is being undermined by powerful companies pursuing profit at the expense of democracy and social cohesion. The business model of the dominant social media platforms depends upon tracking and targeting users to maximise engagement and advertising revenue. Their automated systems are designed to keep us scrolling, clicking, and engaging, even if that means they actively promote content that is polarising, discriminatory, or simply untrue. This is driving deep societal divisions and breaching our individual and collective rights. 

Luminate wants to help shape a future where everyone has the information, rights, and power to influence the decisions that affect them. To do this the online spaces where people engage, share, and source information must become safer, less distorted, and more inclusive, so they promote informed dialogue rather than polarisation and division. Within Luminate, Luminate Strategic Initiatives focuses on ensuring that the dominant digital media platforms work for society and democracy, and not against them. This means changing the way these companies operate via regulation, enforcement, and a shift in culture and expectations amongst users. 

Today, a landmark case has been brought against Facebook’s parent company Meta, with funding from Luminate Strategic Initiatives. The claimant, Tanya O’Carroll, is seeking to exercise her right under the UK General Data Protection Regulation (UK GDPR) to object to her personal data being used to profile her and show her targeted ads. O’Carroll argues that in refusing her request, Facebook is in breach of Article 21 of the UK GDPR, which states that users ‘have the right to object at any time to the processing of personal data’ for ‘direct marketing purposes’. 

The case we are funding challenges Facebook’s demand that users accept personalised advertising as a condition for using the service. At its heart lies the fact that people have the right to choose to use social media to connect with family and friends, access information, or use services without being profiled. While the case is being brought by an individual in the UK, a win could set a precedent for millions of users of search engines and social media in the UK, EU, and beyond who have been forced to accept invasive surveillance and profiling as part of the online experience.[1]

Strategic litigation such as this case is one plank of Luminate Strategic Initiatives' work. We are focused on enforcement actions in Europe because this is where digital regulation is currently most advanced, and where application of the law could drive policy, business model, and product changes that would benefit users around the world. As well as supporting cases like Tanya’s, we are also helping to grow public awareness of harms done by Big Tech; supporting the development of new laws and guidelines fit for the digital age; and helping build a collaborative network of funders and organisations who can work together for a better internet.

The stakes could not be higher. Big Tech’s surveillance-based business model is eroding our shared reality, our trust, and our rights. We think we are making choices about what we see and who we engage with online, but in fact our experience is highly curated. The ‘hyper-personalisation’ of our online experiences is splintering our shared reality, which in turn is undermining the basis for discussion and compromise. 

Big Tech companies profess their commitment to democracy, respecting people's privacy and enabling a safe online experience, but it is not in their interests to embrace reform: they will do just enough to suggest they have the issue under control – but never so much that they imperil their profits or power. We need to enforce existing laws, and develop others that close loopholes and respond to the way the systems are evolving. We also need to shift public expectations of the Big Tech companies to demand services that do not trade away rights and freedoms. Reining in the power of Big Tech is one of the defining challenges of our time. It is one we are stepping up to. 

Read more about Luminate Strategic Initiatives’ combined work in this area here.

[1] A study by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) found that the dominance of Facebook leaves consumers unable to control how their data is used. They note that “most social media platforms do not allow consumers to turn off personalised advertising.”