Can We Trust Corporations That Profit Off Our Information? For Facebook, Twitter, Google and More, You're The Product
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On the internet, as elsewhere, information is money, and information is power. So why have we given it away so lightly?
Something extraordinary has taken place over the last few years. Voluntarily, and without coercion or, indeed, payment, internet users have handed over vast amounts of highly personal data – their preferences, where they live, who their friends are and what they do – to private companies, whose primary goal is to profit from that data. And every day, we hand over more, willingly.
On Facebook, we think we are sharing only with our friends the information – the news, the messages, the photos – that we place on "our" pages. But thanks to Facebook's confusing privacy settings, users are propelled to default and "recommended" settings that make public almost everything – and in so doing, also permit Facebook to make use of your information. Yet more obscure are the complicated and multi-caveated user and privacy agreements most never bother to read. It is only here that Facebook admits that the content (your "intellectual property") belongs to the company. They own it; once it's on the site, you don't.
Google's professed aim, apart from its famous motto to "do no evil", is to organise and share all the world's information. Less loudly avowed is its parallel objective: to make large amounts of money from that venture. This is not a cynical view: profit is – and must be – the goal of all share-held enterprises. If Google did not promise good returns to its shareholders, its share price would collapse and it would cease to exist. (Facebook has not yet been floated on the stock market; it is widely assumed that it soon will be, for perhaps $50bn.)
Both Google and Facebook offer their services to users apparently for free. But the services are not of course free. Both companies sell the information that users provide – in search data, or personal profiles. Apparently, these companies mostly sell their (your) information to advertisers who mine the data in order to target consumers more effectively. But, despite fervent declarations about transparency, in fact, it's very hard to find out exactly to whom they sell the data or what the "data miners" do with it. McDonald's or the CIA? We're not told, even though it is information about us that they are trading.
Most people have realised that this is the exchange implicit in using Facebook or other such "free" services. But the quid pro quo is never explicit: when you sign on to Facebook or Twitter, nowhere are you clearly told that this is the deal. This small but highly significant absence is obviously deliberate, as, one suspects, if we understood more clearly, many of us might think twice before handing over our personal data so lightly. These companies have not been entirely straight with us.
The fundamental, if well-concealed deceit of this exchange is why so many feel uneasy about these companies, and about the way that the internet is developing. And this is not the only problem. In any circumstance, whether in the private sector or government, the concentration of power in the hands of the few is a bad thing. Thanks to network effects, the vast majority of users concentrates in a few sites, making it very hard for new competitors to attract users. This means that a massive amount of personal information about us is now in the hands of a very small number of privately-owned companies whose interests, however valid, are not the same as our own. A company that wishes to expand in China may have few qualms handing its users' data to the authorities in return for permission to operate. Infamously, Yahoo has already made precisely this bargain. Its users did not – and do not – get a say in the matter: none of these companies is democratic; that's not what companies do.