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LISBON— An annual gathering of techies and pundits that often celebrates technology’s possibilities was a little sadder and maybe wiser after a year that’s revealed the weaknesses of many digital institutions to human abuse.
Privacy—both its inadequacy and the mischief made possible by a lack of it—figured heavily at Web Summit this year.
“I think for a very long time in the U.S., we were prepared to accept innovation without holding it accountable for consequences,” Federal Trade Commission commissioner Terrell McSweeny said on a panel Thursday. “I think that’s changing.”
She has some ideas on how to bring more power to consumers.
During a brief interview at Washington National Airport Friday, McSweeny, who was appointed to the FTC by President Obama, voiced her hope for “a serious conversation on privacy.” She put in a request for one feature: more data-portability options to take our information out of Web services and take that business elsewhere.
“It would make it easier for us to move our data around if we weren’t happy with a service, or if we weren’t happy with how a service was securing our data,” she told USA TODAY.
That’s true. But it’s also something that many sites seem in no rush to offer.
“For some generations, a certain amount of privacy is, I think, gone,” said Mozilla executive chairwoman Mitchell Baker in a talk Thursday.
But the head of the non-profit behind the Firefox browser suggested that newfound interest in how detailed tracking online can abet large-scale propaganda campaigns could lead to reform of what she called “the attention economy.”
Said Baker: “What we’re learning about is how easy the attention economy makes it to manipulate people, that may be the thing that forces us to change.”
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One of the less popular speakers offered attendees a reminder of the effectiveness of online advertising—as seen in U.S. election results that stunned conference attendees last year.
“We needed to go out and find people,” said Trump campaign digital-ads director Brad Parscale. “Facebook allowed us to do that in alarming numbers very fast.”
Parscale, however, rejected the notion that Russian use of the same targeting technologies on Facebook made any difference in the outcome.
“I don’t want Russia or any foreign entity to meddle in our election,” he said. “However, I think the scale and the scope of it was pretty tiny.”
The highest-ranking Facebook executive to speak here wound up underscoring the depth of the company’s knowledge of its users when asked about the persistent rumor that the social network’s apps listen clandestinely to its users’ conversations.
In an onstage interview Tuesday afternoon, Messenger product chief Stan Chudnovsky said it does no such thing. Instead, he said, its ads seem uncannily accurate because we don’t realize how much data Facebook collects ”by the virtue of people spending a lot of time on Facebook.”
To get a sense of hope for progress on privacy from Summit speakers, it helped to be European. A sweeping directive called the General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR), going into effect across the EU in May, will grant customers a host of new powers, including the right to demand that a site erase data it’s collected about them.
The GDPR will also require sites to provide the data portability McSweeny seeks—although U.S.-based sites doing business in the EU would face no requirement to extend the same courtesy to their American customers.
The CEO of a leading data broker widely credited—or hated—for providing the Trump campaign with an immense database of U.S. voters professed his support for those principles.
“People, I think, are beginning to get quite fed up with large companies harvesting their data,” Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix said Thursday. “They want to be able to see some return on the data that’s being used.”
But in the U.S., no such law seems likely to happen anytime soon. That leaves individual users to find their own forms of self-help. That could include using a browser like Apple’s Safari that disables some forms of Web tracking. Or it could include cutting down on the time they spend at the likes of Facebook.
(Disclosures: I moderated five panels at Web Summit, in return for which the organizers are covering most of my travel costs. I also write for Yahoo Finance, a sibling site of Yahoo News.)
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/robpegoraro.