英文

Editorial : Controversies over social media

【明報專訊】From Hong Kong to Europe to the United States, there have been a lot of controversies concerning social media recently. While the focus differs, all the discussions have involved the expansion of the power of social media giants and the lack of regulation.

WhatsApp, an instant messaging app, has recently updated its terms of use. For its users to continue using the app after February 8, they must agree to share their phone numbers, location records and other information with WhatsApp's parent company Facebook. Although Facebook has emphasised that the relevant requirements will only be targeted at the retail consumer business, and only information related to this will be shared with Facebook, users have reason to be concerned about under what consumption scenarios will their personal data be handed over to Facebook once they agree to share it. There are billions of WhatsApp and Facebook users worldwide, and many of them are in Hong Kong. The Privacy Commissioner for Personal Data urges users to pay attention to the changes. At the same time, WhatsApp is urged to explain clearly to users how the information will be used and to allow users more time to consider. This illustrates the sensitiveness and importance of the situation.

Facebook came into existence in 2004. It has expanded rapidly within 10 years or so and has become a global networking platform involved in interpersonal communication, information dissemination, business activities and even political mobilisation. Just like Google, Facebook continues to expand its kingdom through mergers and acquisitions. WhatsApp and Instagram have been brought under Facebook's control. In recent years, it has even strived to build cross-platform ecosystem with its three major apps. Compared with other social media competitors, Facebook has an overwhelming advantage, and has a monopoly in many aspects.

Facebook advertises itself to be a provider of permanent free accounts. But at the same time, it has been collecting user data and information. Through complex algorithms, it sells tailor-made "targeted advertisements" and makes huge profits. To put it simply, users' personal data and big data are a way for the company to generate profits. The advertising systems of Facebook and Instagram have long been linked to each other. For many, the issue of user data sharing between the three major apps in the kingdom is concerning, though they know nothing about them. If looked at positively, Facebook's approach can "improve transparency". However, from another perspective, Facebook can indeed be accused of taking advantage of the market to bring its users to its heels. This highlights how easy it is for personal information to be concentrated in the hands of oligarchs in the Internet age. It is necessary to stop abuse and combat anti-competitive behaviour.

Thanks to the sudden controversy over WhatsApp, people in many places have called for a switch to other communication software, such as Signal and Telegram, saying no to Facebook. In Turkey, the authorities have even launched an investigation into Facebook's practices to find out whether there is any violation of competition law. Anti-competitive and anti-monopoly disputes in the Internet industry are common. From Microsoft more than 20 years ago to Facebook and Google in recent years, they have been involved in these controversies. To be fair, the Facebook problem did not become known today. The turmoil this time is extremely fierce and there is a call for a switch to other apps not only because private information is involved, but also because there are political factors.

The social media ecology has become more and more politicised over the past 10 years. Some people use it to promote political ideas, engage in political mobilisation, and even spread propaganda and lies. Social media has gradually become a political weapon, and who controls or leads it has become a sensitive issue.

明報社評2021.01.13:社交媒體亂象交纏 認清寡頭權力真貌

由香港到歐美,最近都有很多關於社交媒體的爭議,各方關注焦點不一,卻又不約而同牽涉到社媒巨擘權力膨脹缺乏約束的問題。

即時通訊軟件WhatsApp近日更新使用條款,用家如欲2月8日後繼續使用程式,必須同意將電話號碼、定位紀錄等資料,分享予母公司facebook(fb)。雖然fb強調,有關要求只針對零售消費商務,與此有關的資料才會與fb共享,然而用戶確有理由關注,一旦同意共享,個人私隱資料會在什麼消費場景下被交予fb。WhatsApp與fb全球用戶數以十億計,香港用戶眾多,個人資料私隱專員呼籲用戶留意有關改變,同時促請WhatsApp向用戶解釋清楚如何使用資料,以及讓用戶有更多時間考慮,說明了事態的敏感和重要性。

2004年fb誕生,10多年間極速擴張,變成一個全球化網絡平台,人際交往、信息傳播、商業活動以至政治動員等包羅萬有。就像Google一樣,fb不斷透過併購,擴大其王國,WhatsApp、Instagram相繼納入旗下,近年更致力以三大應用程式構建跨平台生態圈,比起其他社媒競爭對手,擁有壓倒優勢,在很多地方更是一強獨大。

fb標榜向用戶提供永久免費帳戶,惟同時一直蒐集用戶數據資訊,透過複雜的演算法,大賣度身訂做的「定向廣告」,獲取巨利。簡言之,用戶個人資料和大數據,就是公司財路。fb與Instagram的廣告系統早已共通,王國內部三大應用程式共享用戶數據的問題,外界雖然關注,卻又一無所知。今次fb做法,正面看是「提高透明度」,惟換個角度,fb確有挾市場優勢「霸王硬上弓」之嫌,突顯了網絡時代個人資訊容易集中在寡頭巨擘之手,有必要遏阻濫用,打擊反競爭行為。

WhatsApp風波驟起,多地都有人呼籲「轉會」,改用其他通訊軟件,諸如Signal、Telegram等,向fb說不;在土耳其,當局更就fb做法展開調查,了解是否有違反競爭法。科網界反競爭反壟斷紛爭屢見不鮮,由20多年前的微軟,到近年的fb、Google等莫不如此。平情而論,fb的問題,也不是今天才知道,今次風波鬧得格外激烈、「轉會」之聲響亮,除了因為牽涉私隱資訊,似乎也滲入了政治因素。

社交媒體生態,近10年變得愈來愈政治化,有人以之宣揚政治理念、從事政治動員,甚至散播文宣謊言。社媒漸漸成為政治武器,由誰操控或主導,變成了敏感問題。

■Glossary

生字

scenario : a possible development of events

concerning : worrying

switch : a change from one thing to another, especially when this is sudden and complete

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