Fox News chief Rupert Murdoch is close to finalizing the buyout of a British telecommunications company that could give him control of a detailed database which could prove irresistibly tempting for political use, warned members of parliament.
Murdoch is seeking to buy the remaining 61 percent of Sky — which serves more than 20 million customers in the UK, Germany, Italy, Austria and Ireland — but six members of the House of Lords asked regulators to block the sale over privacy concerns, reported The Guardian.
Regulators in the other four European countries where Sky operates have already approved the $15.3 billion sale, and British regulators are expected to issue a decision next week.
Six members of parliament wrote a letter this weekend warning that the Australian-born media mogul would gain unregulated access to one of the “largest and most sophisticated datasets in the country” – including the TV habits, internet activity and phone records of 13 million households.
This detailed record of individual interests and activity could threaten British democracy if allowed to “fall into the hands of an owner with an appetite for political leverage, the temptations and opportunities for misuse become very great indeed,” the members of parliament warned.
The data would give Murdoch — or anyone given access to the data — the ability to individually target the telecom giant’s customers with personalized advertisements, as Cambridge Analytica did through social media during the Brexit and U.S. presidential campaigns last year.
The data company owned by hedge-fund billionaire and Donald Trump megadonor Robert Mercer is central to investigations in both the U.K. and U.S. of possible outside interference — including Russian meddling — during last year’s elections.
“There is no privacy — these companies know exactly who we are,” said David Carroll, a professor at Parsons School of Design who has been involved in legal efforts to learn how corporations use individual data for political purposes. “What we’ve seen in the U.S. with Trump and Cambridge Analytica is how this is used by political players.”
British filmmaker David Puttnam, who helped scuttle Murdoch’s last buyout bid for Sky six years ago in the wake of a phone hacking scandal, said the data could offer enormous insight into individual preferences and leisure habits that could be exploited for political purposes.
“We have this unbelievable situation where we have no regulation of political advertisements, so a party can tell any lie they want,” Puttnam said. “I do see this as a very grave threat to our democratic process. What is incredible is this hasn’t been considered at any point. If you look at the asset value of Sky, you suddenly go, ‘Well, hang on there, here’s a bit of unbelievable value but it hasn’t been included in the price.'”
If approved, the deal would give Murdoch and his two sons control of the Times of London, Sun, Wall Street Journal, Sky News and Fox News.
“He would control people’s access to the internet, TV, digital radio and emails,” warned Phil Westcott, managing director of the AI consultancy firm Filament. “As an internet service provider, you can speed up or slow down certain websites to control what people see. And if you own all these channels, you’d be able to influence people very subtly. It wouldn’t even necessarily be overtly politically, it could just nudge you in a certain direction by filtering the messaging you receive. And those messages could be completely different from the person next door. What I find most scary about this is how certain news and information could simply be filtered out.”