Why I didn’t sign the Fundingmatters.tech petition

Thoughts on ethics at the intersection of academic research on law & tech and industry involvement

In 2018, academic storms start on Twitter. One of them has been the public concern surrounding the sponsors accepted by this year’s Amsterdam Privacy Conference. The Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University was hosting one of the panels at the conference until they withdrew. The reason? Data analytics company Palantir was one of the Platinum Sponsors at APC. Palantir has faced a lot of public backlash after different allegations, such as having collaborated with Cambridge Analytica on the Facebook data acquired by the latter, doing commercial data profiling or helping the US government on surveilling its citizens. In a nutshell, Palantir has a bad reputation. This is why a petition was created, fundingmatters.tech, now signed by over 60 academics from around the world, publicly asking for the removal of Palantir from the sponsor list.

As co-authors who have successfully submitted a paper (‘Moving fast and breaking things: Social media, data brokers and unfair commercial practices’) for the ‘Regulation of the information society’ panel, Stephan Mulders and I decided not to sign this petition, and in what follows I will defend this choice and take this opportunity to address some related ethical questions which any academic currently working on law and technology should reflect on.

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Influencers on Social media – Between Law and Ethics

25 September 2018, Brown Bag Lunch
12.15-13.45, MakerSpace (room beside Mensa), University of St. Gallen

Social media has been changing the way in which people communicate, and that is nothing new. The emergence of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Youtube or – more recently –Musical.ly has transformed social interaction in peer-networks. This transformation can be noticed by anyone participating in or observing such networks. What is less noticeable, though, is how business models have changed to benefit from these shifts in social trends.

One industry where business practices have been fundamentally impacted is the advertising industry. While in the early days of social media marketing, social networks were used to establish online brand identity, since 2015 a new advertising concept has been sweeping the online space: influencer marketing. Based on peer empowerment – anyone with a camera and internet connection can start producing content for an online social media platform, influencer marketing is to social media what native advertising is to the news world. Persons with well- followed social media accounts lend their brand image for the endorsement of goods or services, while rarely – if at all – disclosing that their support does not necessarily entail genuine appreciation for the endorsed things, but that such support is paid or bartered for.

This event aims to discuss influencer marketing using insights from private law, ethics as well as journalistic practice. Register by sending an e-mail to isabel.ebert@unisg.ch by 23 September. Exceptionally, Skype connections may also be available for streaming.

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The ‘Private’ in Private International Law – 2018 Maastricht Private Law Lecture by Prof. dr. Symeon C. Symeonides

The Maastricht Private Law Lecture, hosted by the Maastricht Department of Private Law, is an annual event at which a most distinguished scholar is invited to give a lecture on a topic related to the wide field of private law. An interactive seminar with PhD-researchers will follow on the next day.

The 2018 Maastricht Private Law Lecture will be given by Prof. dr. Symeon C. Symeonides.

Symeon C. Symeonides is the Alex L. Parks Distinguished Professor of Law and Dean Emeritus at Willamette University, in Oregon, USA. He has drafted three private international law codifications (for Louisiana, Puerto Rico, and Oregon), participated in drafting some EU Regulations and two international conventions, and provided legislative advice to five foreign governments. He has published 27 books and more than 120 articles, some of which have been cited by the Supreme Courts of the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel. He is the recipient of six academic prizes and a Lifetime Achievement Award. He has taught at Thessaloniki, Louisiana State University, Loyola, Tulane, NYU, Paris-I, Paris-V, Louvain-la-Neuve, and The Hague Academy of International Law. He is past president of the International Association of Legal Science and the American Society of Comparative Law. He holds two degrees summa cum laude in private and public law from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, an LL.M and an S.J.D from Harvard, and three honorary doctorates.

This event is open to all the community, but registration is required. Register here free of charge.

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IACL Younger Scholars Forum (Fukuoka, 25 July 2018) – A Brief Overview

Technology and Innovation: Challenges for Traditional Legal Boundaries’ Workshop

The 20th Congress of the International Academy of Comparative Law (IACL) took place this year in Fukuoka, Japan, between 22-28 July. Apart from bringing together established comparative law scholars from different fields and jurisdictions, the Congress also hosted the first edition of the IACL Younger Scholars Forum, convened by Richard Albert(Professor of Law at the University of Texas at Austin), the former president of the Younger Comparativists Committee of the American Society of Comparative Law.

With this occasion, 200 young scholars around the world had the opportunity to engage in an international academic debate and discuss their research through eight different workshops. Sofia Ranchordás (Professor of European and Comparative Public Law, University of Groningen), Andras Koltay (Associate Professor of Constitutional Law, Pázmány Péter Catholic University) and I had the pleasure of organizing one of the eight workshops, titled ‘Technology and Innovation: Challenges for Traditional Legal Boundaries’. The workshop covered discussions on 23 papers, which we grouped around 6 different themes: Privacy and Data Protection; Media Law and Free Speech; Challenges in Intellectual Property; Online Platforms; Business Law, Blockchain & RegTech, and AI Law. Young scholars from around the world were in attendance and their papers were commented upon by the Distinguished Provocateur-Discussant (Sofia Ranchordas), with the purpose of stimulating the consideration of new angles for their submissions.

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Facebook’s Data Sharing Practices under Unfair Competition Law

Crosspost from the Stanford Transatlantic Technology Law Forum Newsletter, Issue 2/2018 

This is a brief analysis of Facebook’s data sharing practices under unfair competition rules in the US and EU. A paper on this topic co-authored by myself and MEPLI research fellow Stephan Mulders will be available shortly, and it will be presented at the Amsterdam Privacy Conference in October 2018.

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2018 has so far not been easy on the tech world. The first months of the year brought a lot of bad news: two accidents with self-driving cars (Tesla and Uber) and the first human casualty [1],  another Initial Coin Offering (ICO) scam costing investors $660 million [2],  and Donald Trump promising to go after Amazon [3]. But the scandal that made the most waves had to do with Facebook data being used by Cambridge Analytica [4].

Data brokers and social media

In a nutshell, Cambridge Analytica was a UK-based company that claimed to use data to change audience behavior either in political or commercial contexts [5]. Without going too much into detail regarding the identity of the company, its ties, or political affiliations, one of the key points in the Cambridge Analytica whistleblowing conundrum is the fact that it shed light on Facebook data sharing practices which, unsurprisingly, have been around for a while. To create psychometric models which could influence voting behavior, Cambridge Analytica used the data of around 87 million users, obtained through Facebook’s Graph Application Programming Interface (API), a developer interface providing industrial-level access to personal information [6].

The Facebook Graph API

The first version of the API (v1.0), which was launched in 2010 and was up until 2015, could be used to not only gather public information about a given pool of users, but also about their friends, in addition to granting access to private messages sent on the platform (see Table 1 below). The amount of information belonging to user friends that Facebook allowed third parties to tap into is astonishing. The extended profile properties permission facilitated the extraction of information about: activities, birthdays, check-ins, education history, events, games activity, groups, interests, likes, location, notes, online presence, photo and video tags, photos, questions, relationships and relationships details, religion and politics, status, subscriptions, website and work history. Extended permissions changed in 2014, with the second version of the Graph API (v2.0), which suffered many other changes since (see Table 2) [7]. However, one interesting thing that stands out when comparing versions 1.0 and 2.0 is that less information is gathered from targeted users than from their friends, even if v2.0 withdrew the extended profile properties (but not the extended permissions relating to reading private messages).Table 1 – Facebook application permissions and availability to API v1 (x) and v2 (y) (Symeonidis et al, 2015)

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