Much as I’m not a fan, I can’t help but be impressed at Mark Zuckerberg’s performance in his testimony in the US in the last couple of weeks. He’s remained calm and patient and explained and defended Facebook and technology companies in general well and effectively in the face of some tough challenges, not the least of which being the, at times, stupid questions and the glaring ignorance of how the platform or even the internet works. Our data is for sale and we all need to get used to that new reality.
The argument that the general user doesn’t know that their being tracked and their data being used and sold when using free services like this is ridiculous and can only be likened to the idea that if you commit a crime, ignorance is no defense of the law. If you want to use Google, Facebook etc, this is the price, and they still allow you to opt out of most things. It’s also worth remembering that this issue sprang from users voluntarily taking part in quizzes and connecting to third-party service without making themselves aware of the terms and conditions. I suspect that even though he has responded to virtually everything they’ve asked and justified much of the business model for the industry this is another step towards governments regulating the internet and moving further from net neutrality.
If I was cynical I’d almost think they’re envious of how much data the have on people and are looking for justification to get access to it. It’s got me thinking a lot about the free services we sign up for on a regular basis. Social media, Gmail and other services have become a staple of everyday life, but all too often, when reports of how our personal information is used, people jump to criticism before remembering that they are free for a reason, you’ve volunteered your data to them which they intern use to target you with ads, and allow 3rd parties to target you with products and services.
All of a sudden, it seems, this is too much and our freedom is at stake, or so the people who have turned this into a political issue would like you to believe. The reality is though that companies have been doing this for years, but only with the huge scale of the likes of Facebook are people paying attention. Think about this, whenever you applied for credit in a bank or purchasing a car or a whatever in the last 30 years or so, that information and your replies to questions have been stored and shared with multiple parties in an effort to sell you other things or get interest from you on credit cards and so on.
Even if you look at supermarket loyalty cards, these track your purchases and trends and they then share this with their suppliers and partners which send you coupons and offers for related items, We’ve voluntarily surrendered our data for decades and now that it seems to be at a scale to affect political elections it has come to a very nasty and public head. But should we be surprised? I hate to be the barer of the bad news but we all ticked ‘accept’ when we signed up.
You could take the stance that they didn’t make it clear as to what you were getting yourself in for, but now that you know, rather than opting out of using these services, most people are telling them to change. Change their policies, their business practices and even their revenue streams. To a point I think platforms need to be more vigilant about false or harmful content and how this affects people, but telling them ‘you gave me this service for free, I don’t like the terms now, so change it or I’ll complain’ almost feels to me like the spoiled kid whose parents buy him a car and he tells them it’s the wrong colour.
I’m not saying these platforms, such as Facebook and Google are without guilt or at least some responsibility, but the simple answer is stop using it if you aren’t happy with the terms and conditions. Why is it though people won’t? Like with your bank, most people may not be happy with the interest rates or customer service, but the majority will just stay customers, quietly cursing their financial institution but doing nothing about it, and these are services we pay for, who also have a huge amount of data about us.
We want everything for free, with complete privacy, but in the end there’s no way any business could sustain that. A friend of mine reminded me of a line the other day; ‘if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product’ and this is true for the likes of Facebook and their peers. It also annoys me to no end when people talk to me about how there’s no safe guards in place and no way to protect yourself when all of these services have opt out on virtually everything, to the point where your profile and data can be virtually invisible to the world, almost defeating the purpose or social media, but the option is there. People just seem either unwilling to take the time to find these settings and click them.
Shouldn’t they be on by default? I hear you cry. Again though these services wouldn’t be able to function let alone offer the service if everyone was opted to be completely private. No data means no revenue, means no service.
The truly terrifying aspect to the senate and house questions towards Facebook are that the people in power seem completely technology illiterate and more intent on ‘regulating’ then working with the providers to ensure safety and security online. The real thing we should fear is a government insisting it be part of the regulation or auditing process as this will give them unprecedented access to data that had previously been used for commercial purpose but could potentially be used to redraw political boundaries, disenfranchise people or worse. Maybe all big brother has to do is wait for the public unease with social media to reach a point where the ‘obvious’ answer is government intervention.