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Luciano Floridi: "Either We Control Facebook or it Will Control Our Whole Life"

19 Feb 2016
Professor Floridi gave this interview to Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia following STI's "Technology and the Good Society" experts meeting, which he led as academic director.

Luciano Floridi, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute and member of the EU’s Ethics Advisory Board

I am 51 years old: In 10 years, a billion people’s entire lives will be on Facebook, which has shown how it can change its users’ moods – and perhaps someday their votes – by changing its content algorithm. I was born in Rome, but grew up in Oxford. I collaborate with The Social Trends Institute in Barcelona. 

On the Internet, as in Einstein’s universe, eternity adjoins each individual instant and Pythagoras informs us that numbers are the quintessence of reality. Today, power too consists in a secret bunch of figures: algorithms. Google’s can reveal if you paid your mortgage and if you can get another. And Facebook’s – the ones that worry Floridi the most – can be manipulated, it has been shown, to influence the mood of millions of users and with it, the destiny of entire populaces. They are also able to reveal that you drink too much at parties or remind you that you were in Bilbao (at your best friend’s funeral) a year ago, or in Cornwallis four years ago (at that cliff top hotel so loved by the ex-wife you’ve been trying to forget for three).

 

There are things about me on the Internet that I don’t like…

It can happen to anyone: that day when you appeared in a photo with someone you shouldn’t have, doing something that today you wouldn’t want known.

By God, I wish they would take it down already!

Well, let’s consider that: Is the photograph legal, or not?

For me, it’s disastrous.

But does it incite or promote any crime: pederasty, pornography, drugs? Was it taken or posted without consent, or does it violate your or anyone else’s rights?

What would happen if that were the case?

Any EU judge – and even Google without requiring a judicial order – would take down links to it and block it at its platform of origin. And we have an EU-US agreement in effect to block it across both continents as well.

And if the photo were legal, but I just didn’t like it?

If the problem is that you think that the checked shirt doesn’t flatter you…

Let’s assume a worse case.

Like if you post a nude photo of yourself…

That surely wouldn’t flatter me.

…In a crazy moment you regret…

It would have to be taken down for everyone’s benefit.

As a member of the Google council, my criteria - which the company accepts – is to heed anyone – whether a public figure or not – who claims a convincing reason, and to remove those links.

I’m glad to hear that, but why do you draw a difference between public and private figures?

Because when people are of public interest, what they have done is also considered to be of public interest. So in that case, the public’s right to know the information prevails over their right to keep it to themselves.

And who decides if someone is a public or private figure? Are you a public figure? Are you famous?

Yes, I am now a public figure. And I agree with you: the applicable criteria are in effect but not effective. Taxi drivers, for example, are of public interest while driving a taxi; but when they are not driving one, they are not.

We are all famous in our own neighborhood. But we oughtn’t deserve less protection because of it.

That’s why I advise Google, Oxford and the EU to ignore that criterion and substitute it for simply helping people within reason and in what is truly important.

But it’s hard to block the Internet.

It’s impossible, because - as you know - the Internet was conceived without a center, but Google is erasing links within Europe and even around the globe in order to block access to content from the network within the affected person’s country. 

How could all the networks be blocked?

It can only be done with a robot that impedes access to the database or the platform that hosts the damaging content, and only when the content has not yet been shared. 

Let’s say I had debts that I paid off, but they still appear when I’m googled.

La Vanguardia was involved in a case like that, which set off the first lawsuit before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg for the right to be forgotten. Let me repeat that today our guiding principle is to remove those links because we believe that we all have the right to make over our image and our life.

And what about my right to know that someone didn’t pay a debt before I lend him money?

The right of someone who has demonstrated his intention to redress his errors and proceed in good faith should prevail.

Why?

If individuals don’t have a right to be forgotten, populaces won’t have one either. Many years down the line, the children and grandchildren of those who lived through a civil war – I’m thinking of Ireland or the Basque Country – would see on the Internet those who killed and were killed, and so we would never heal the wounds of past wars. We must put the past behind us. 

Some people speak of a right to be remembered.

A right to memory, yes; A right to hate and retaliation, no. Honoring victims should not serve to legitimize the revenge of those who believe themselves to be the heirs of one side of a war.

And if Google were to ignore my plea?

You can appeal to your national agency for data protection and soon you will also be able to take advantage of laws being prepared by the EU. But don’t you think there’s something wrong if you have to ask Google to protect you?

What is it that’s wrong?

Society should protect itself rather than having to trust a private enterprise. And you’ve yet to ask me about the bombshell Facebook means for our future.

Don’t scare me.

Facebook harbors far greater risks than Google: it already knows a ton about a billion people’s lives, and in 20 or 30 years it will know everything about billions.

So what?

It already experimented with 689,000 users by manipulating its algorithm so that some received only good news and some only bad news. 

Those users were then more optimistic or pessimistic?

It was predictable, but they demonstrated it empirically and they published it. Though the incredible part is that no one complained about the experiment. Can you imagine that kind of influence on the eve of an important referendum that hinges on a small number of votes?

And what about the soccer player whose contract Barça rescinded because of an anti-Barça tweet he’d posted long before?

Because of cases like that, I now advocate that social media platforms erase their contents annually, for example. Individuals can save those contents on their hard drive if they so desire, but they would not be eternally at the public’s disposition for the rest of our lives.

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This interview originally appeared in La Vanguardia's "contra" on February 18, 2016. Read it here in Spanish. Photo by Xavier Cervera - La Vanguardia


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