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In the 1974 film The Conversation, mercenary spook and grumpy jazz enthusiast Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is tasked by a secretive multinational cooperation to follow a young couple around San Francisco, recording their every move. Aware of the potential for his professional skills to be used against him, Caul lives all alone in a flat wrapped in signal disrupting wire mesh, uses only public telephones to make phone calls and has a fraught relationship with hotel toilet seats.

For those concerned about their online privacy in the wake of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, Caul’s methods might not be obviously appealing, even if they are likely to be more effective than de-tagging yourself from photos of that night in Magaluf.

But as well as anticipating the current debate about the abuse of personal data, the film’s portrayal of surveillance by unscrupulous corporations is an even more unsettling watch today. The capabilities of Facebook to snoop on our private lives are exponentially more powerful than Caul’s now rather quaint microphone in a ballpoint pen. And the consequences of weaponising that snooping – recently in the form of influencing elections in the UK and US – far more consequential.

Of course, Facebook would claim to be far from the malevolent multinational portrayed in The Conversation. It would argue, with some justification, that it has instituted rigorous controls on the third-party use of personal data – and indeed it is not clear whether the Cambridge Analytica scandal could have been prevented by regulation. But at the heart of this issue is one of accountability. Given the enormous power that Facebook now wields, some form of regulatory oversight is surely necessary, with the government legislating that regulation answerable to voters.

Of all the arguments against, by far the most specious is that a set of common rules would hamper innovation and thus harm economic competitiveness. Aside from the increasingly shaky assumption that all and any kind of innovation in the tech sector is a good thing (for one thing the looming employment shock about to be caused by automation), it has long been clear that private enterprise, for all its merits, has excesses that should be reined in.

In many ways the current debate about the regulation of Facebook, as well as other tech companies, bears a lot of similarity to that about banking regulation before the financial crisis. Back then, those who raised objections about the ‘light-touch’ regulation of financial services were dismissed as socialists or luddites, blind to the benefits that complex derivatives could bring to the people.

Intense relaxation from politicians about bankers getting rich from selling people things they do not understand has been replaced by even greater chillaxing about coders getting richer from creating algorithms that could undermine elections, or for that matter, create mass unemployment.

Some have also argued that regulating Facebook and other social media platforms would somehow undermine consumer choice. According to this line of thinking, if individuals know that companies are harvesting their personal data, with lax controls, but choose to continue using them anyway, then that’s their problem.

But it is increasingly clear that consumers are not ambivalent to how companies use their personal data. Following Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to Congress, polls suggest a large majority of Americans now believe that tech companies like Facebook should be regulated. In the UK, a majority want to see the company fined for its failings in the Cambridge Analytica affair.

As to why users don’t vote with their feet, there is a growing body of scientific evidence that suggests social media like Facebook have addictive qualities, in the medical definition of the word, thus undermining the ability of consumers to make truly free decisions. The dopamine rush from an Instagram like or a Twitter follow has replaced fags, drugs and booze as the vice of choice for millennials. Quite how the neural pathways of the next generation are being rewired should be the subject of further study and the long-term consequences a matter of public debate.

There are anti-trust issues as well. Facebook is not quite a monopoly, but it is getting close. In the apps space its next largest competitors are Messenger and WhatsApp (both of which it owns), while in the social network space its nearest competitor is YouTube, which focuses mainly on video content. Asked in his Congressional testimony about Facebook’s main competitors, Mr Zuckerberg was at a loss.

Indeed, in some respects Facebook resembles nothing more than a gigantic public utility company with sexier branding. Due to the unprecedented reach of its network, Facebook is the go-to place to organize almost any form of social activity – from medieval battle re-enactments to support groups for victims of domestic violence.

The only compelling argument against the regulation of companies like Facebook concerns freedom of speech. Facebook sits in an ill-defined position when it comes to what we traditionally understand as the media – part advertising platform, part communication tool, part publishing company. The experience of countries like China – which bans Facebook to stamp out criticism of its regime – should make us uneasy.

Similarly, we already recognize that some forms of freedom of speech – incitement to violence, for example – create harm and outlaw them. Facebook and other social media companies already self-regulate forms of unpleasant or dangerous speech, but when push came to shove they proved woefully unprepared to counteract the waves of grim propaganda and fake news generated over recent election campaigns in the UK and US.  

In any case, those that argue that the only thing worse than the power of social media being abused by the private sector is it being abused by the state have clearly left their sense of irony in the back of the Uber. This is precisely what occurred when Mr Putin used Facebook to meddle in recent elections.

What kind of regulation is a different question – and should be the matter of a public debate that has not yet occurred. A starting point would be more transparency over what kind of data is collected from customers and how it is used. In fact, that is the basis of the EU’s recently implemented General Data Protection Regulation. In response, Facebook has moved the legal status of over a billion of its users from Ireland to the US to be out of its reach. The obvious question is, what has Mr Zuckerberg got to hide?

Oliver Harvey is a member of Bright Blue, a political writer and economist. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.