With Big Tech platforms like Facebook hosting vast volumes of user data, new analysis from experts at the University of Oxford provides a stark warning about the risks to personal information if these companies were to shut down.

Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, part of the University of Oxford, have examined the ethical and legal implications of a hypothetical scenario where Facebook, the world’s largest social media platform, closes down.

In the paper, published in Internet Policy Review, Carl Ohman, doctoral candidate, Oxford Internet Institute, Digital Ethics Lab, and Nikita Aggarwal, doctoral candidate, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford and research associate, Digital Ethics Lab, argue existing governance and regulatory frameworks are inadequate for addressing the legal and ethical risks that would arise from the demise of a data-rich company like Facebook.

Carl Ohman said:

“The potential demise of Facebook might seem highly unlikely, but the implications need to be taken seriously given the platform is home to over 2.6 billion users and their associated data. Companies regularly fail and shut down, yet existing regulatory frameworks simply don’t answer the question of what happens if a company like Facebook folds. We’ve taken the first steps to map out the legal and ethical landscape at play so we can better manage the fallout. This is hopefully just the start of a vitally important debate among academics, policymakers, and the tech industry.”

The paper examines how changing social media usage trends combined with regulatory pressures could eventually lead to a restructuring or closure of the main Facebook platform, or even the company as a whole. It also looks at the communities and individuals who would be affected, ranging from ordinary users whose private data is stored on Facebook’s servers to entire nations and societies in which many economic and media ecosystems are dependent on Facebook’s services.

The authors set out four recommendations for policy-makers:

  • Develop a regulatory framework for ‘Systemically Important Technological Institutions’ (SITIs) to ensure the essential services provided by Big Tech platforms such as Facebook can be maintained or transferred to another platform, and the harm to dependent communities minimised. This framework should draw on existing approaches to regulating systemically important financial institutions, critical national infrastructures and public utilities.
  • To ensure user data is not arbitrarily auctioned out to third parties, strengthen the legal mechanisms for users to control their own data in cases of platform closure, using mechanisms such as data trusts.
  • Since Facebook will soon accumulate hundreds of millions of profiles of deceased users — who cannot protest if their data is mistreated — strengthen legal protection for the data and privacy of these users, including preventing the profiles of deceased users being arbitrarily sold or mined, and giving next of kin the ability to protect the privacy of deceased users.
  • Create stronger incentives for Facebook to share insights and preserve historically significant data for future generations, for example through a digital version of UNESCO’s World Heritage Protected status.

Co-author Nikita Aggarwal added:

“The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted the systemic importance of platforms such as Facebook to the exchange of information in today’s society, providing vital access to public health advice and keeping communities connected through digital communication tools.  As such, there are compelling reasons to regulate these platforms as systemically important technological institutions in order to minimize disruption to the essential services that they provide.”

Notes for editors:

About the research

The full article is published with open access in the journal Internet Policy Review.

About the OII

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. https://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/