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Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook testimony is a start. But only bipartisan cooperation will fix this crisis.

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As Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the U.S. Congress this week, the whole world seems to be against Facebook. Is this a watershed moment for the future of the company and the broader consumer internet as we know it? Will the tremendous public outcry against Facebook and the rest of the industry result in truly meaningful change that actually advances consumer interests and protects the long-term integrity of American democracy?

Perhaps. But if this is to happen, we will need to look beyond the monotone drumbeat of anti-industry rhetoric to understand precisely how the core business model of internet platform companies like Facebook really work. Only then can we reverse the exploitative and polarizing tactics that were likely pursued by political communicators during the 2016 elections.

Will the tremendous public outcry against Facebook result in change that actually protects the long-term integrity of American democracy?

The market structure that permitted Cambridge Analytica’s breathtaking scale of data collection and exploitation was not a hack or a breach or an illegal act. It was merely an example of the core product offered by Facebook — targeted advertising — functioning as designed and exploited to its logical (if unsavory) extreme. Leveraging user data to target ads and customize content that appeals to people is the business. And there are precious few restrictions on how it can be done, even if the results undermine the integrity of democratic political culture.

What is really at stake here is not just privacy. Yes, the fact that 87 million users’ Facebook data was (and maybe still is) out there for nefarious actors to manipulate is not good for individual privacy; none of us want our sensitive information in the hands of strangers. But if we think of the incident only in this way, we run the risk of casting it in the same light as the recent data breaches at Uber, Equifax, Sony, or Target.

Remember them? All of these incidents were significant and caught the public’s eye, too — and were equally damaging to consumer privacy. But notably, nothing really happened to any of these companies. After a few weeks of public backlash and some minor slaps on the wrist, it was back to business as usual.

But there is something different about the Facebook incident; the data leaked to Cambridge was especially rich and sensitive, and came into the possession of people who aimed to directly influence our political freedom. News reporting has not yet revealed in great detail what kind of data Cambridge took. We can guess, though. First, the data likely included personally identifiable information — persistent indicators that can uniquely identify a person including his or her name, phone number, email address, and perhaps most dangerously, Facebook user ID. Second, we know that Cambridge gained access to users’ “Likes” — that is, the pages, personalities, news reports and other content in which users indicated their interest.

The combination of these two types of data would necessarily have allowed Cambridge — and by proxy, potentially its clients — to infer the preferences, interests, beliefs and behaviors of the people whose data was stolen. And as far as we know from the disclosures, most of those 87 million people were American voters.

 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, from center, leaves a meeting with Sen. John Thune (R-SD) on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 9, 2018. Andrew Harnik / AP

So, should we demand better security, privacy and policy practices of Facebook and like companies? Most definitely, yes. But this will not immediately shut off the potential for future disinformation operations. The fact is, no grade of security is capable of never being breached. And though the academic question of whether or not this incident should be classified as a “security breach” (a term that carries certain legal ramifications) has correctly been challenged by Facebook, the company could surely have done things better — in choosing its research partners, in holding them accountable for the handling of sensitive data and in disclosing these details to consumers.

But what the public needs to understand is the nature of the digital advertising industry itself — and by extension, the nature of the customized social media feeds into which these ads are integrated. We are its consumers whenever we use the internet. And though its commercial underpinnings may not be readily apparent to us, this market is driven first and foremost by our personal information.

This world of digital commerce, which is dominated by advertising, is premised on the collection of vast quantities of user data, the creation of networked platforms that offer compelling services and the sale of targeted ad space to anyone who will pay for it. The fact that nefarious actors have invaded this space now should motivate us to clean up the digital square.

Left unchecked, we will see a race to the bottom to use digital tools for political exploitation. Now is the moment to put country over party on both sides of the aisle.

Which brings us back to the matter of Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony. This is not one of those issues that can be treated with party line dogmatism. And while Trump and his brand of Republicanism may have benefited from this degradation of American politics in the short term, this is surely not a constant. Left unchecked, we will see a race to the bottom to use digital tools for political exploitation. Now is the moment to put country over party on both sides of the aisle.

So far, reaction from policymakers has been publicly strong but privately uneven. Facebook has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle following reports of data breaches, but legislation that might work to close privacy loopholes has been slow to materialize. Last October lawmakers introduced a bill, The Honest Ads Act, sponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators and supported by as many as 18. The bill proposes that the marketers that fund internet-based political advertising be explicitly displayed in the ads. This approach represents a good start. But the bill has so far failed to move out of Committee. Now that Facebook has reversed course and announced its support for the bill, this may change.

But even if the bill does find the votes, it does not go far enough. Transparency alone — even if there was consensus around a gold standard — cannot stop the actions of nefarious actors intent on affecting our electoral process. Nor would proposed algorithms that might better detect malicious content, because disinformation actors and other bad players will find ways around them.

Even with the current backlash, it is difficult to imagine legislation that reforms the ways that internet data is collected and advertising algorithms are developed could find enough votes.

What we need is comprehensive reform of business practices in the sector. As we argued in a report published by New America and the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year, it is the business model of the digital advertising industry itself that has been the root cause of the problems that have surfaced over the past few years.

More effective than the Honest Ads Act would be a baseline privacy law. But even with the current backlash, it is difficult to imagine that legislation that reforms the ways that internet data is collected and advertising algorithms are developed could find enough votes to pass Congress.

This is a grim reality. Our challenge is not just to overcome the natural resistance of mega-corporations to regulatory oversight, but to break free of the self-defeating partisanship that threatens to turn an existential crisis of democratic integrity into another Washington soap opera. Cambridge Analytica has shown us the consequences of failure. What we need now is leadership — from industry and from government — that meets this crisis with ambition and principle.

Dipayan Ghosh is a fellow at New America and the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was a technology and economic adviser during former President Barack Obama’s administration, and until recently, worked on privacy policy issues at Facebook.

Ben Scott is senior advisor at New America and served as Policy Advisor for Innovation in the U.S. State Department during the Obama administration.

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Ireland’s health service shuts down IT systems over ‘significant ransomware attack’ | World News

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Ireland’s health service has closed down its computer systems after what it described as a “significant ransomware attack”.

The Republic’s Health Service Executive (HSE) said it had shut down its entire IT network as a “precaution.”

It said COVID-19 vaccinations were not affected by the attack.

“There is a significant ransomware attack on the HSE IT systems,” the HSE said on Twitter.

“We have taken the precaution of shutting down all our IT systems in order to protect them from this attack and to allow us fully assess the situation with our own security partners.”

It added: “We apologise for inconvenience caused to patients and to the public and will give further information as it becomes available.

“Vaccinations not affected are going ahead as planned.”

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Israeli ground forces launch attacks on Gaza as fighting worsens | World News

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Israeli ground forces began launching attacks on Gaza in a widening of hostilities as Israel braced for more internal strife between its Arab and Jewish citizens following Friday prayers.

The Israeli military said air and ground forces were firing at the Hamas-run enclave, though it does not appear to mean the start of a ground invasion, with Sky News witnessing troops launching artillery and tank rounds from Israel’s side of the border.

“I said we would extract a very heavy price from Hamas,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement. “We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force.”

Streaks of light are seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercept rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system has intercepted many of the rockets launched from the Gaza Strip

Thousands of Israeli forces along with tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery are massing along the frontier with Gaza, preparing to push inside if given the order, in what would be a hugely significant escalation.

Unperturbed, Palestinian militants continued to launch rockets from the strip towards Israel into Friday morning.

At least 109 Palestinians have died since the exchanges began on Monday, including 28 children and 15 women, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Palestinian militants have said 20 of their fighters are among the dead, though Israeli officials said this figure is much higher.

Almost half of the deaths happened on Thursday – the deadliest day so far.

On the Israeli side, seven people have been killed, including two children and a soldier.

But this is a crisis on many fronts, as decades of Israeli-Palestinian trauma erupt into clashes on the streets of many towns and cities inside Israel – with Arabs and Jews, who had lived together peacefully, turning on each other, prompting warnings of a risk of civil war.

Synagogues have been attacked, cars torched and individuals beaten up by mobs in the worst internal violence in decades.

New protests could erupt following Friday prayers, with al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City a potential flashpoint.

It was at this walled compound – one of the most sacred sites in Islam, which is also revered by Jews and Christians – that violence between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters on Monday sparked the first volley of rockets from Gaza into Israel that ignited the wider crisis.

A Palestinian boy looks at ruins of buildings which were destroyed in Israeli air strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. Pic:  Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Shutterstock
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The blockaded strip is home to some two million Palestinians who have no means to flee. Pic: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

There is of course a regional dimension as well.

On Thursday night, three rockets were fired towards Israel from Lebanon. They landed harmlessly in the Mediterranean Sea in what appears to have been a show of solidarity with Gaza by Palestinian groups in Lebanon rather than the start of a separate offensive.

With so much at stake, frantic diplomatic efforts are underway to try to broker a ceasefire.

Egyptian officials have been speaking with both sides as have officials from the United Nations. The US has dispatched a senior diplomat to the region and Russian President Vladimir Putin has added his voice to those calling for both sides to de-escalate.

In Washington, President Joe Biden said he spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction”.

He said the goal is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centres”, and called the effort “a work in progress”.

The UN Security Council is due to hold its first public session on the situation on Sunday after the US objected to an open session on Friday, apparently wanting to give diplomacy a little longer to have an effect.

However, with bombardments between the two sides – unprecedented in their intensity – entering their fifth day, there is no obvious sign that diplomacy is cooling heads.

The Israel Defence Forces has hit close to 1,000 targets in Gaza, including multi-storey buildings, rocket launch sites and individual Hamas military commanders. But this blockaded strip of territory is also home to some two million Palestinians who have no means to flee.

Overnight, masses of red flames illuminated the skies as deafening blasts from the outskirts of Gaza City jolted people awake.

The strikes were so strong that people inside the city, several miles away, could be heard screaming in fear, according to the AP news agency.

At the same time, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a fellow Palestinian militant group, have fired close to 2,000 rockets towards Israel. Many were shot down by the country’s air defence system but some have penetrated deep into Israeli territory, including the commercial capital of Tel Aviv, sending families racing into shelters.

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Fresh uncertainty for UK tourists as Portugal extends ‘state of calamity’ until 30 May | UK News

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Britons hoping for a holiday in Portugal when travel restrictions lift next week are facing fresh uncertainty after the country extended its “state of calamity”.

The second-highest level of alert is going to remain in place until 30 May at the earliest, almost two weeks after the country is added to a “green list” of destinations where holidaymakers can go without having to isolate on their return.

Portugal would have been one of the few options for travellers seeking a quick sunny break, as many of the other countries on the “green list” are either closed to tourists, too cold, or too remote.

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Portugal would have been one of the few options for sun-seeking British tourists

Other popular hotspots such as Greece, Italy, Spain and France are on the amber list, requiring 10 days of isolation and two COVID-19 tests on return to the UK.

The new restrictions cast a shadow over the Champions League final between Manchester City and Chelsea that is due to take place in Porto on 29 May – an event that has already been moved from Turkey, which is on the red list.

When asked whether restrictions on travel from the UK would be lifted, Portuguese Cabinet office minister Mariana Vieira da Silva said she had “no information to give yet”.

In comments reported by the BBC, she said: “Work is going on and as soon as there is a decision it will be announced, but no decision was taken in this cabinet meeting.”

She said British fans could still come to see the football game but they would need to fly on charter planes, arriving and leaving on the same day.

On Thursday, the world’s largest travel firm warned it may be forced to cancel holiday flights to Portugal, just as the UK allows them again, because of a continuing EU ban on non-essential travel from countries outside the bloc.

TUI, which told Sky News earlier this week that people were giving up on booking a break abroad because of a lack of clarity on the rules, said holidays could not happen unless “borders are open”.

The “state of calamity” means non-residents of Portugal can only enter if their travel is essential, a COVID test is required within 72 hours of departure, and even those with a negative result can still be refused permission to board a flight or be made to quarantine in government-approved accommodation on arrival.

It is understood the UK government has been speaking with Portuguese representatives this week about unlocking travel between the two countries.

The government is also talking to the European Commission about how to safely reopen travel on the continent, the PA news agency understands.

Portugal has reported 840,929 cases of COVID-19, with 16,999 deaths.

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