Mark Zuckerberg at VivaTech Paris
PHOTO: shutterstock

2018 represents a watershed moment in the evolution of how people interact with the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter and other popular internet technologies. Over the year, the prevailing euphoria and faith in the ability of mobile devices and social media to enhance our lives shattered in a heap of disturbing revelations, as the dark side of the technology and its providers were exposed on a colossal scale.

Cracking open Mark Zuckerberg’s 2012 Facebook manifesto today engenders a peculiar feeling. What were we thinking? Did we really believe Zuckerberg when he said that Facebook "can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time?" 

In retrospect, the rest of the document is equally jarring. Considering what we now know about Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential election, it is incredible we ever believed this stuff.

With a year of disturbing revelations about what internet companies are doing with our data and our psyches, 2018 marks the year when yesterday’s altruistic internet billionaire superheroes were unmasked for what they really are: tenacious rivals in a highly-competitive and lucrative business.

We will never look at mobile and social technology the same way again. Here are just a few of this year’s momentous events and why they will forever change the way we use the internet.

The Facebook Bubble Burst

The dark side of Facebook revealed itself on several fronts this year. The naïve idea that letting the masses self-manage their own discourse would be a source for good was put to rest. In his 2018 book, "Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now," computer philosopher Jaron Lanier explained the inevitability of Facebook’s ‘pack mentality’ — that participation in social media encourages us to be obnoxious, because the more hateful a post is, the more attention it attracts.

Beyond behavior online, Facebook the company revealed itself as arrogant and apathetic to the concerns of greater society. During 2018, the company bounced from one PR scandal to another. The first included disturbing facts about Facebook’s role in the 2016 presidential election. The second was the revelation of its laissez-faire approach to data privacy exposed in the Cambridge Analytica episode. The latest scandal surrounded Facebook’s commissioning research to target organizations critical of its operations.  

Fallout from these scandals has led to a public backlash about the wisdom of trusting private organizations with so much of our private data.

Related Article: How Facebook's Cambridge Analytica Scandal Impacted the Intersection of Privacy and Regulation

Time Is Well Spent … Offline

Even the most enthusiastic technology boosters now realize that today’s internet and mobile companies are surreptitiously manipulating us to induce technology addiction, addiction that is impeding our ability to focus on what really matters, is degrading our personal relationships, and is inducing depression. Spearheaded by former Google employee Tristan Harris, a ‘time well spent’ movement has emerged with a goal to ‘to catalyze a rapid, coordinated change among technology companies through public advocacy, the development of ethical design standards, design education and policy recommendations to protect minds from nefarious manipulation.”  

In 2018, Harris co-founded the Center for Humane Technology whose goal is to "realign technology with humanity’s best interests." The center advocates attacking technology addiction through humane design of products and services, applying political pressure, engaging employees, and creating a cultural awakening to take back control of our digital lives.

These efforts and others have led to the mainstream realization that too much screen time is dangerous to us and our children. A feature article in The New York Times and a recent feature on 60 Minutes are shining a light on the scope of public concern.

Related Article: Is Your Time Online Time Well Spent?

Tech CEOs Called on the Congressional Carpet

2018 represents the Howard Beale moment for internet companies like Google and Facebook. Public officials are clearly "mad as hell" — so how much longer will they take it? During the past year, Congress conducted multiple hearings in which they interviewed representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google. In parallel, the British Parliament and representatives from nine countries conducted hearings looking into possible excesses perpetrated by internet companies. While the hearings displayed as much ignorance on the part of our elected officials as it did about the evasive nature of the tech companies’ business practices, it is still unclear where these hearings will lead.

Tech companies clearly understand that public backlash might lead to stifling regulation, so they are proposing watered-down measures intended to satisfy the public’s concern for privacy, but which won’t really impact their core businesses. Will tech companies be able to quell the outrage by reining in their own excesses? It remains to be seen, but if we can learn anything from history, monopolies are rarely able to self-police themselves to the satisfaction of the greater public. Just ask Standard Oil and AT&T.

Related Article: Data Privacy Regulations: Marketing Symptom, Setback and Solution

GDPR Became Law of the Land in Europe

In May, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) became law in the European Union. GDPR introduced data privacy protection for European citizens, including the right to obtain personal data held by organizations. It also introduced the right of a citizen to request that decisions based on automated processing of personal data should be made by people, and not by computers. Furthermore, citizens are entitled to a "right to an explanation," namely, organization are required to provide reasons for their decisions. For example, if a bank rejects a loan application, the bank must explain the basis of its decision. Blaming it on an algorithm is not sufficient. 

GDPR is the broadest attempt to date to take back some control from the internet giants who mine our personal data and use it (often surreptitiously) to our detriment. We can look forward to more of this legislation in the future.

Related Article: Is it Finally Time for a Federal Privacy Law?

What 2019 Portends

Looking back at 2018, is the internet glass half full or half empty? Is there reason to be optimistic as we enter the holiday season?

There’s no doubt that the state of data privacy and the corporate excesses exposed in 2018 paint a depressing state of affairs. But herein lies my faith for a better future: Understanding the depths of a problem is the first step in addressing it. The rising up of technology insiders, public outrage and the adoption of GDPR in Europe are welcome first steps. The glass is indeed half full.

Realizing that we need to take back control of our lives from the internet companies may be a rude awakening, but it is one that will reinvigorate us. Let this "light at the end of the tunnel" understanding bring us comfort during the upcoming holidays.

Best wishes for a happy holiday season.