LAST year, data surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable commodity.
Our every move online is stored, processed and sold-on to predict our behaviour and then alter it.
This factory-harvesting of our personal data has made five tech companies the most valuable listed firms on Earth.
Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft together make over €25billion profit every quarter.
The growth of the tech giants has outstripped the pace of legislation in every democracy.
This has led to behemoths not only disrupting their respective markets, but being used to upend democracy too.
The most infamous example is Cambridge Analytica, a firm that bought data from an academic research team on millions of US voters and used it to target them with fake news posts on Facebook.
CA was working for the Trump campaign and a vortex of disinformation throughout the 2016 campaign is partly blamed for the shock result.
Facebook knew about the data breach but did nothing to alert the public or the electoral system for two years.
It only admitted to the breach after it was exposed by The Guardian’s investigative journalist Carole Cadwallader.
Data on voters was collected in a frighteningly simple way.
Facebook users were enticed by a ‘one-click personality test’, but the app not only took all of their personal data, but that of their friends too, even though they had not participated.
Using the tranche of information, CA wonks were able to determine the likely political persuasions of Facebook users based on their profile.
Even sexual orientation, religion and attitudes towards immigrants were easily detected.
The firm boasted it had 5,000 personal data points stored on every adult voter in the US.
During the Trump campaign, its digital team bombarded swing voters, spending up to a million dollars a day on Facebook ads.
It was a truly frightening demonstration of how we have gifted true information about ourselves to have it mishandled, sold on and sent back to us wrapped in mistruths to change our view of the world around us and who should lead it.
Worse, it worked.
Last month, Facebook, a huge profiteer of those misleading adverts, was fined almost €5billion by the US federal trade watchdog for the CA data breach.
The enormous fine was barely a scratch, nine per cent of its total revenue for 2018.
On the day the fine was announced, Facebook’s share price rose by 2 per cent, adding €10billion to its market value.
The reason? The settlement didn’t change the way Facebook collects and shares data and so doesn’t affect its business model.
Like its CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a US senate hearing on election hacking, Facebook scarcely blinked at the sanctions.
Simply put, Facebook has become too big to be controlled and it must be broken up.
When Standard Oil became too large in the early part of the 20th Century, holding a near-monopoly of what was then the most valuable commodity, it was broken up.
Standard Oil was confronted and taken down, but there are too few willing to do it in governments around the world.
Ireland is still in a position of power when it comes to data harvesting.
We regulate on behalf of Europe because those five biggest companies have their European headquarters here.
So it is very troubling to see the chummy relationship in letters recently released between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Facebook execs Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.
The back and forth could not be warmer or more complimentary.
The correspondence is important as in practice, the Government is reluctant to take action on Facebook’s business model, even after fines for its sloppy privacy practices.
Varadkar’s position is one of meek inferiority to the Facebook boss.
He has dragged his heels on creating a powerful Digital Safety Commissioner, mooted years ago, which would call Facebook to task.
The firm has lobbied against it and that lobbying appears to be working, cemented by direct and friendly emails between Varadkar and Zuckerberg.
Then again, who could blame him? Varadkar is a leader with approval rating woes facing an imminent General Election.
How can Ireland take on the terrifying power of Zuckerberg?
He controls three vast platforms — Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp — and he alone can change algorithms to determine what people see in their feeds and what data can be captured.
He can decide who can broadcast on his platforms and he can and has shut down rivals by simply buying them, copying their tools or blocking them out.
This is too much power invested in one person and in one firm.
If Microsoft’s scary dominance was fixed in the 1990s antitrust cases then we can fix our data nightmare using the same democratic instruments.
Data is the new oil.
Oil used to be a resource that was regulated, monitored and even owned by nation states.
We’ve allowed a few people to monopolise more information about us than we can even remember ourselves.
Civil liberties campaigners, cyber psychologists, educators, philanthropists, even a Facebook founder agree that the social media monster is too big and that data needs to be vested back into the ownership of citizens.
When are we going to listen?
Film of the summer?
I SAW Once Upon a Time In Hollywood two weeks ago and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
It looks set to be one of Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino’s last productions, as he pledged to retire after ten.
The film is maddening, at times perplexing but ultimately brilliant. Many moviegoers will find themselves asking midway through — what on Earth is this even about?
But the wonderful stories within the story, scintillating moments between Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, and the trademark revenge-fantasy turn of violence could make it the film of the summer.
It’s set 50 years ago, in 1969, regarded as the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood and it focuses on brutal murders in a Beverly Hills mansion by members of the Manson family cult.
DiCaprio plays a declining star, his only friend being his taciturn stunt double Pitt.
Tarantino is keen to focus on a number of ‘lasts’ and DiCaprio is often referred to as the last movie star of his generation as influencers infiltrate Hollywood.
His performance is mesmeric, beautifully welding comedy and a portrayal of tragic despair.
Pitt’s scene in which he taunts and fights a preposterous version of Bruce Lee is the laugh-out loud moment of the film.
Tarantino pays loud, funny tribute to some of his own previous films and there’s a great instance when Pitt’s character visits the Manson family living in a derelict western movie lot — a long scene shot like a western as if to emphasise the genre’s decline.
Tarantino drew cries of sexism for giving the wonderful Margot Robbie an underused role with little dialogue, but I feel the attacks are misdirected.
His over-macho focus appears to have a dramatic point that is lost in our knee-jerk, outrage-addicted world. Neither of the two male leads are lovable and one may even be unforgivable.
But Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is really about the end of something, perhaps of Tarantino’s time too.
He’s made a terrific head-scratcher of a film that appears to challenge why we mourn the end of eras — times we could rely on for never changing — but questions too whether they were times that provided anything worth holding onto.
Oh, and watch out for a magical turn by Al Pacino.
Brits in need of our Irish realism
THE attitude of Irish people towards Brexit has been consistently more realistic than the British folk who are actually living through it.
Here are the signs — the latest consumer sentiment index has shown that economic optimism here is at its lowest ebb since 2014, a period of deep pessimism amid the austerity that triggered the water protests.
The KBC/MRBI index slump is said to be down to ‘Boris Blues’ and fears over how the new British PM is determined to steamroll us into no-deal Brexit calamity.
However, the British consumer sentiment index has shown a sharp rise in spenders’ optimism for the UK economy, for the same reason.
It’s the opposite to the Irish reaction to Johnson’s plan for a Halloween cliff edge drop.
During Theresa May’s tenure, the Brits held back spending amid the uncertainty just as the boom carried on here without fear of hangover.
Hopes were high on this side of the Irish Sea that Brexit would never happen thanks to Tory fudges and mishandling, or that a soft exit would be the worst of it.
The most amazing aspect of the upbeat British mood is that it comes amid news that the UK economy shrunk by 0.2 per cent last quarter for the first time since 2013.
A similar decrease in the next quarter and the country will technically be in recession.
Brexit keeps delivering upsets. A nation’s confidence swings upwards as its economy contracts.
Up is down, truth is false and a recession is something to be hopeful about.
At times like these we can proud of our Irish penchant for always expecting the worst.
Don’s a smoke & mirrors master
THE key to tackling Donald Trump has always been about monitoring his harmful acts in office rather than focusing on his distracting words.
Trump’s main agenda of activity has not been just upending immigration policy, but his roll-back of protections for the environment.
At first he appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency a man who had sued it multiple times and called for its dissolution.
Scott Pruitt eventually resigned after upsetting Trump, having successfully survived storms over a raft of ethical issues.
This week Trump’s administration issued plans to kill off America’s beloved Endangered Species Act, a law credited with saving the bald eagle and the grey wolf.
Richard Nixon signed the act in 1973.
For Trump’s fans from the fossil fuel industry, the act has prevented them drilling for oil and gas, laying pipelines or logging across America’s wilderness to save costs.
The changes to the law mean economic tests will be considered above scientific evidence about the protection of species on the endangered list.
It will make it easier to remove species from the list and paves the way for major development in unspoiled parts of the US.
It runs contrary to all environmental warnings and comes after the United Nations said one million wildlife species were at risk of extinction.
While commentators rail about the horrible things oozing from Trump’s mouth, the real actions he takes with devastating consequences are drowned out in the din.