I’m taking a break from my break to make some posts. This first one concerns the Internet, particular internet services, and the arguments that arise from it all.
Some Background Information
This weekend, I was on Twitter when I saw a trending story about Cambridge Analytica. The story was covered by The Huffington Post, among others.
Apparently, CA and its parent company had been suspended from Facebook for violating user privacy rules.
For those who don’t know what Cambridge Analytica is, it’s a political data analytics firm. CA is also part of Strategic Communication Laboratories (SCL), a British company. In 2016, Cambridge Analytica was paid millions of dollars by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and it was extremely effective.
From the information I already had about CA, the company used data from various sources, including from social media. The employees from company bragged about their processes and information-gathering, saying that they had information from virtually all American voters. However, according to this new information, the company may have taken information from Facebook through unethical means.
On Friday, March 16, 2018, Paul Grewal (Facebook VP & general counsel) wrote a post about the social media platform’s decision to suspend SCL/CA and certain individuals from the platform. In the post, Grewal explained that Aleksandr Kogan, a professor at the University of Cambridge, had created an app (thisisyourdigitallife) which took information from 270,000 users and their Facebook friends. That amounted to a total of 50 million people, but that was not the issue. FB only decided to act after discovering that Kogan passed the information to third parties.
In 2015, Facebook found out that the user information gleaned from the app was given to SCL/CA and Christopher Wylie. (Wylie is now with Eunoia Technologies, but he co-founded Cambridge Analytica and left the company in 2014.) FB ordered all concerned parties to delete the user data they had, but said the order went unheeded.
I fully understand that various apps one can use on Facebook collect data from them and their friends. Facebook itself collects data on its users. That’s how Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire.
However, the reach Facebook and other companies have is rather concerning. To be quite honest, I don’t like it all.
That’s pretty scary, but that’s not the half of it. As pointed out in the video, companies like Google don’t just follow you when you use their apps. They follow you all over the Internet. That means Google and Facebook are tracking your every online move, even while you’re on other websites.
The Debate About Internet Services
Together, Google and Facebook account for 63% of all digital advertising and they have no incentive to give up their online reach. However, when someone brings this up, they will likely be rebuffed or blamed for the whole thing.
Now, while that video I showed was informative, I hated the way Adam relayed some of the information. He basically said that FB and Google do what they do because we (the internet users) didn’t want to pay for these websites (Apparently, it costs just $12 per person to subsidize a website), but that’s shifting blame. That’s basically what someone I talked to did yesterday.
On Saturday, I responded to the story from The Huffington Post, but not without a small controversy. Shortly after pointing out how Facebook’s business model is what made Mark Zuckerberg rich in the first place, I was told this (which I’m paraphrasing):
Derp-derp, everybody knows that Facebook sells your info. That’s how they sell ads. If you don’t like it, don’t use it. Herp-derp.
In response, I told this guy that Facebook follows users and nonusers alike. Then he asked why I was targeting Facebook — although the story was about Facebook. (By the way, the same person once told me that he had no problem with warrantless NSA spying, so we parted ways on the issues a long time ago.)
Why That Guy’s Response Was Awful
I hate his type of rhetoric. It annoys me. Not only it is complacent, it’s ignorant in its own way.
While we know how Facebook, Google, and other companies might collect and use people’s information, that’s not an excuse for what they do. This might be the reality, but it doesn’t make it right. Also, not everyone has to accept these companies’ practices.
Here’s the truth: There are many companies that take people’s information and sell it, whether those people are paying customers or they don’t use those companies’ services. If you were to go back in history, you would discover that Experian (one of those dreaded credit bureaus) has doing this crap forever.
What about Equifax? It compromised the information of millions of Americans, even those who didn’t use its services!
What about Verizon? It lobbied lawmakers just so it would have the right to sell ITS CUSTOMERS’ info and not be held liable for data breaches!
Who in their right mind would defend this crap?!
The Fact of the Matter Is …
Being spied on by internet companies is essentially unavoidable. It’s not really the consumers’ fault. I blame the companies, their executives, and government officials because that last group is doing virtually nothing about it.
Many of us have to use the Internet. If you work online, you need an email address. You might need to use the Internet to access some services for a job at a physical site or to even apply for one. In some cases, you might have to use some government services through the Internet.
It would also be impractical to stop using phones. We also have to use telephones even though we know that people could be listening in on all our calls, too.
When people use the argument of “Well, that’s the way things are,” or “Don’t use this service if …” they are excusing bad behavior. I think privacy is important and if some websites/companies “have” to make money by exploiting people in any way, those companies don’t really have a right to exist.
Still, if some people don’t have a problem with giving their information, I’m sure there are honest and open ways companies could go about it.
Ultimately, there needs to be a discussion about how to subsidize websites without compromising our information. I started thinking about this a while back.
Now, it would be impractical to pay all free websites, even with one month payment for each user. I also fear that we would have a system like cable where websites were part of bundles. However, if there was a way to subsidize the Internet so that it was free and people’s privacy was protected, we should look at it.
Besides that, we have to think out of the box while seeing what works. Here are some solutions:
- Surveys are always a good idea. Not only are people freely giving some information, they are giving free feedback to companies. The companies can then use the information to improve their products or develop other products.
- Websites should also rely on a type of analysis to figure out it users are clicking on ads or if they’re effective (without using people’s personal information).
- Why can’t websites build more partnerships and paid services? Websites like LinkedIn are set up to link job seekers with companies, other professionals, and services that could help them in their career. Users’ experiences are tailored according to their direct inputs and LinkedIn offers premium services.
This is what I can think of right now. If we could put our heads together, we might find some great solutions.
I like my privacy just fine, thank you, and I completely disagree with the notion that using free services should come at the cost of my privacy. If many websites make their money without selling people’s information, there’s no excuse for Facebook, Google, and others.
Boboltz, Sara and Papenfuss, Mary. “Facebook Suspends Political Research Firm Linked to Trump For Violating User Privacy.” The Huffington Post. 17 Mar 2018. Web. <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/facebook-suspends-trump-scl-user-data_us_5aac7d54e4b0c33361b08eb0>.
CollegeHumor. “The Terrifying Cost of ‘Free’ Websites.” YouTube. 7 Dec 2016. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pFX2P7JLwA>.
Gibbs, Samuel. “Facebook admits it tracks non-users, but denies it breaches EU privacy law.” The Guardian. 10 Apr 2015. Last modified 21 Feb 2017. Web. <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/apr/10/facebook-admits-it-tracks-non-users-but-denies-claims-it-breaches-eu-privacy-law>.
“Google and Facebook Tighten Grip on US Digital Ad Market.” eMarketer. 21 Sept 2017. Web. <https://www.emarketer.com/Article/Google-Facebook-Tighten-Grip-on-US-Digital-Ad-Market/1016494>.
Grewal, Paul. “Suspending Cambridge Analytica and SCL Group from Facebook. Facebook Newsroom. 16 Mar 2018. Updated 17 Mar 2018. Web. <https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2018/03/suspending-cambridge-analytica/>.
Komando, Kim. “Facebook is watching and tracking you more than you probably realize.” USA Today. 18 Mar 2016. Updated 29 Mar 2016. Web. <https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/columnist/komando/2016/03/18/facebook-watching-and-tracking-you-more-than-you-realize/81803796/>.
Svetlik, Joe. “9 creepy ways Facebook is tracking your every movement, from the shops you visit to the messages you don’t send.” Digital Spy. 26 June 2016. Web. <http://www.digitalspy.com/tech/feature/a798721/ways-facebook-is-tracking-your-every-movement-from-the-shops-you-visit-to-the-messages-you-dont-send/>.
Weinberg, Gabriel. “Google and Facebook are watching our every move online. It’s time to make them stop.” CNBC. 31 Jan 2018. Updated 1 Feb 2018. Web. <https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/31/google-facebook-data-privacy-concerns-out-of-control-commentary.html>.