The Guardian view on controlling social media: the start of a long road

Editorial
‘In all these cases the regulators are playing catchup, as is apparent from the ludicrous inadequacy of the fine on Facebook.’ Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Facebook has been fined five and a half minutes’ revenue – the most the law allows – for breach of data protection regulations in connection with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. This is a welcome recognition of the tireless work done by the Observer on the story. But it must only be the beginning of a wider examination of the ways in which big data shifts the balance of power in a democratic society. Even if it can never be proved that the manipulation of social media swung either the EU referendum or the election of Donald Trump, there is much to be concerned about in what has come to light as a result of investigations that started with Facebook.

This is one of those cases where suspicion is almost as damaging to trust in institutions as proven malfeasance could be. Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, has said that what’s at stake is “transparency, fairness and compliance with the law”. This is exactly right. The companies with our data target us as individuals, but appear themselves as faceless – indeed bodiless – manipulators who know far more about us than we do about them. That asymmetry is where the novel danger to democracy lies. The power it offers is hard to resist: one of the investigations announced by the commissioner today is into a marketing firm which approaches new mothers at their most vulnerable moment to collect their data, some of which was then sold on to the Labour party. In all these cases the regulators are playing catchup, as is apparent from the ludicrous inadequacy of the fine on Facebook. They are chasing a moving target. The increasing use of internet-connected widgets in the home and on our bodies, and – with face recognition – in every public space, ensures there will soon be unimaginable amounts of data for the unscrupulous to harvest and use. It is essential that the law restrains them.