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The European Union made major strides in May when it passed regulations to protect citizens' online data, setting precedent for exactly what the United States should but still has not done.
Social media companies almost have limitless reins when it comes to their users' personal data. With a Democratic Congress in the House of Representatives come January, Congress will finally have the chance to protect some of the most intimate details of Americans' daily lives.
The likelihood of someone actually reviewing the terms of agreement before signing up for a social media account is low. The likelihood is so low that 73 percent of people admit to overlooking the terms of service when they sign up for a new account online.
Review a Terms of Service: Facebook
For many, the terms of service for Facebook above might have been the first time they viewed it. It is unfortunately normal for a lot of users to ignore and accept user terms of agreements without a second thought. So, if a company like Facebook includes vague language on how it treats users' data, people are more likely to overlook the invasive policies that they are agreeing to.
Social media companies almost always share their data with advertisers and other technology companies. Facebook just happened to be the unlucky face of everything that is wrong with social media.
That is not to say, however, that the power of social media should ever be doubted. To doubt its power is to not truly understand just how powerful it is.
Very few social media companies, if none at all, charge customers to use its platforms. Most get their revenue from advertisements and sharing data with third parties. This means that the users themselves are the products because advertisers use data sold by social media platforms to tailer advertisements to targeted audiences.
After diving deep into the fine print of Facebook's data policy, there is a brief mention of third-party information sharing.
"Apps and websites you use may receive your list of Facebook friends if you choose to share it with them. But apps and websites you use will not be able to receive any other information about your Facebook friends from you, or information about any of your Instagram followers."
An investigation into Facebook by the New York Times discovered that Facebook shared information that its users even chose to opt-out of, from direct messages to personal contact information with companies like Yahoo, Amazon, and Apple. For months, Facebook told the public that they were working hard to protect its users' information and pulled the wool over everyone's eyes.
Furthermore, people that use technology and social media have to be mindful of phishing scams and hackers, notwithstanding the distrust Facebook already created. Researchers found in 2013 that Apple MacBook cameras could be turned on without the warning light, leaving thousands of users open to intrusion.
With so many online data breaches, the question remains: what can be done in the United States to better protect users' online data and hold social media companies like Facebook accountable?
One way to ensure social media companies act in good faith is having clear regulations that promote transparency and reprimands for companies when something like a data breach occurs.
When the General Data Protection Regulation, the European Union's top watchdog organization, became aware of a Facebook data breach in September, it quickly opened an investigation and the company faces a possible fine of up to $1.6 billion. In forcing a transnational company like Facebook to pay billions of dollars in fines, seeking stronger privacy measures for users would increase trust and engagement on these platforms.
After all, it is the user that is the product and third parties that purchase us from social media companies like Facebook.