News & Politics

Facebook Turned Our Economy Into a Spying Operation

Companies are selling our data to the highest bidder so we can buy more products we don't need.

Photo Credit: Gil C/Shutterstock

George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton sold us on the idea that we no longer needed a manufacturing economy in the U.S. because the internet was coming and it would provide entirely new business models.

Now we’ve seen what that new economy looks like: spying for sale.

Facebook takes all the information you give them, which they then use to create profiles to sell advertising to people who want your money or your vote.

Your internet service provider, with former Verizon lawyer and now head of the FCC Ajit Pai having destroyed net neutrality, will soon begin (if they haven’t already started) tracking every single mouse click, reading every email, and checking out every one of your online purchases to get information they can sell for a profit.

Your “smart" TV is tracking every show you watch, when and for how long and selling that information to marketers and networks.

And even your credit card company is now selling your information—what have you bought that you’d rather not have the world know?

To paraphrase Dwight Eisenhower’s Cross of Iron speech, this is not a real economy at all, in any true sense. It’s a parody of an economy, with a small number of winners and all the rest of us as losers/suckers/“product.”

While it’s true that Facebook’s malignant business model may well provide a huge opportunity for a competitor to offer a “$3 a month and we don’t track you, spy on you, or sell your data” plan (or even for Facebook to shift to that), it still fails to address the importance of privacy in the context of society and law/rule-making.

We cannot trust corporations in America with our personal information, as long as that information can make them more and more money. Even your doctor or hospital will now require you sign a form allowing them to sell your information to third parties.

It’s been decades since we’ve had a conversation in America about privacy. What does the word mean? How should it be applied?

Much like the NFL provides solid rules for how football games are to be played, government sets the rules for how business is played. The Facebook crisis may well provide us with a great opportunity to again discuss privacy, and what should and shouldn’t be considered “private information.”

While the Fourth Amendment protects us from snooping and spying by the government without due process, nothing in the Constitution protects us from our ISPs or Facebook or our banks or supermarkets spying on (“tracking”) us and selling our private information.

But lawmakers can easily set the “rules” of business to establish new privacy guidelines for the 21st century.

So, what should be private information that’s worthy of protection? Where are the boundaries? And what rules should be set?

At the very least, government should mandate “transparency in spying.” When Facebook, your supermarket, or your credit card company sells information about you, they should be required to tell you exactly what information they sold, and to whom.

Just this simple transparency requirement would solve a lot of these problems.

Business, of course, will scream that they can’t afford compliance with such an onerous requirement. Every time they sell the fact that you love dogs but have a cat allergy and buy anti-allergy medications, they’ll only make a few cents per sale, but it’ll cost them more than that to let you know what part of you and your collective body of information they sold to the allergy medicine manufacturers.

And that may well be true. It will decrease the profitability of companies like Facebook whose primary business model is spy-and-sell, and will incrementally reduce the revenue to medical groups, credit card companies, and websites/ISPs who make money on the side doing spy-and-sell.

But we have a long history in America of saying to business, “If that business model is destructive to our society, you can’t do it.”

We did it with slavery, we did it with child labor, we’re doing it with financially lucrative discriminatory practices from redlining to the race- and gender-pay-gap. Other examples include the minimum wage law, bans on predatory loan practices, and requiring companies not to pollute.

Just because a company can make money doing something doesn’t mean it should be legal and/or unregulated.

The internet has, indeed, turned into a “thing” every bit as powerful and profitable as manufacturing once was.

But we had several centuries of trial-and-error experience with regulating industrial manufacturing, from wages to pollution to product safety standards.

It’s time to develop real and meaningful standards for the internet economy and to get our personal data under control.

The Founders wrote the Fourth Amendment because they were concerned about an oppressive government that couldn’t be fought or changed because it knew everything about us. They never envisioned a day when a few billionaires could do the same, even to the point of using mistruths in a data-targeted way to change an entire government.

We need a serious discussion of privacy: what it is, what the appropriate parameters of it are, and the role of government in protecting our privacy from predatory corporate actors.

And, at the very least, we need a “transparency in corporate spying” law right now.

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Thom Hartmann is a talk-show host and author of more than 25 books in print. He is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute.