The fall of social media giants like Facebook could open the floodgates on data privacy issues, scientists have warned.

Although the tech giant is unlikely to close given its current healthy state, researchers at the University of Oxford have looked at the implications if Facebook did suddenly shut down one day.

A paper published in the Internet Policy Review journal sets out four key recommendations to avoid the serious social and economic consequences of such a hypothetical event.

“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,” said study author Carl Ohman, doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute.

“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 research says a regulatory framework should be developed – on the same scale of those for important financial institutions, critical national infrastructures and public utilities – so that service can be maintained or safely transferred to another platform.

Legal mechanisms providing users with greater control of their own data in the case of closure should be put in place to ensure their information cannot be sold off to a third party, the study recommends.

It also believes there should be stronger legal protection for the data and privacy of deceased users, handing power over their information to next of kin.

Meanwhile, scientists propose the creation of stronger incentives for Facebook to share insights and preserve historically significant data for future generations.

“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,” said Nikita Aggarwal, co-author of the paper.

“As such, there are compelling reasons to regulate these platforms as systemically important technological institutions in order to minimise disruption to the essential services that they provide.”

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