The recent revelations of Facebook’s data breach have shed light on quite how much personal information Facebook has collected and the means to which it is put to use. In response, a global ‘shock and awe’ has led to Mark Zuckerberg questioned by the US Senate, the ‘DeleteFacebook’ movement and a consensus that Facebook has committed a great wrong.
In this blog post, I argue that we should share in this blame, we built a society which champions profit over purpose, where privacy is worth less than pennies and Facebook is entrusted (without reason) to act like a Government. However, within this capitalist society, we also have the tools to make the change we desire and this loss of privacy can bring about a greater good.
Have your own cake and eat it too
People love social media. Or, at least, they spend hours on it every day absorbed by their virtual presence on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp and even LinkedIn. Whilst these platforms can be harmful, as a friend of mine, Brynley, showed in her talk, social media has enabled us to:
- Communicate globally, instantly and affordably
- Create and maintain loose-connections with an incredibly wide number of people many of whom we may not have met or will not meet again, how amazing (or depressing)!
- Organise events, raise awareness about them and find out about others
- Share our lives with others
And yet, how much do we pay for it? Nothing, its free!
However, in reality, in a world where scarcity exists, everything has a price-tag. This value may not be commodified, i.e. air or personal time, or even form a clear exchange of goods, i.e. housework in a family, but it exists and costs. (In fact, air has been commodified by Vitality Air.)
So as Facebook spends $1.61 billion in a quarter to maintain the platform, as a profit-driven company, they must be extracting some value from users. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch so what did we sell, you ask?
A Deal with the Devil
In return for a ‘free’ social media platform, as one of the greatest symbols of capitalism, we sold our privacy (cheaply, at that). Moreover, we did so by signing away our rights with a ‘Terms and Conditions’ we did not even care to read. But Zuckerberg just seems like a trustworthy guy, right? (Whilst his body language suggests otherwise but as deconstructed in this video, we should not infer much.)
We have willingly provided Facebook with mountains of personal data by posting our photos, birthday, inner thoughts (on messenger), location and even our relationship status. Facebook in turn then sells advertising space to companies for their products or to promote their ideas, matching you and your data to products and ideas. In the system we have created, it is the companies who are Facebook’s valued customers – not us. And, as always, ‘the customer comes first’.
Perplexingly, people are outraged at the knowledge that this data is collected and used by Facebook but there ain’t no such thing as Free Lunch!
Better the Devil You Know
In one Senate Hearing, Representative Debbie Dingle summed up the issue at heart when she said ‘I worry that when companies say they value our privacy, it is meant in monetary terms not in the moral obligation to protect it…data protection and privacy is like clean air and clean water, there needs to be clear rules of the road.’
Rep. Dingle’s analogy drew a comparison of Facebook as a Government, not a Private Company. Facebook is not a government, although Zuckerberg argues how they are becoming one in this fascinating podcast. Facebook is owned by an individual, run by selected (not elected) members and funded by companies rather than the public. Our faith is clearly misplaced, and we are the ones responsible for doing so…we should have more Sympathy for the Devil.
‘Putting our Money where our Mouth is’
In many ways, Facebook is a reflection of ourselves. Facebook does not value our privacy because we do not. They value profits, just as we do. In our capitalist society, Facebook can boast to return huge profits and we reward such behaviour (with higher share price valuations), seemingly ignorant of the fact that this money comes from extracting value from us. We applaud it in one context and then condemn it in another. Why should Facebook be any better?
If we want Facebook (or other platforms like Google or Youtube) to move in a better direction, we need to provide an attractive reason for them to do so. In the current ‘advertisement’ model, our data is of value only once Facebook sells it to companies. This will always create incentives for Facebook to data mine as much as they can out of us. Our only leverage exists in our choice to opt in or opt out of the system (although once opted in, our historical data does not vanish). The ‘DeleteFacebook’ movement is one such movement but for now, it seems people prefer keeping their Facebook status rather than Privacy one. Although the global outrage has led Facebook, at least for PR reasons, to introduce greater data transparency.
Alternatively, we could shift to a ‘membership based’ model where we pay a fee for the service. This is now in use by some prominent podcasters like Sam Harris and blogs like Wait But Why with a base service that is generally free and extra content for subscribers. This enables them to focus on delivering high quality content to their audience rather than ‘clickbait’ for advertisers. In such a model, Facebook could, therefore, remain free for those unwilling to pay for their data rights and become ad-free & data protected for those who are. (This does bring about interesting ethical questions for those unable to pay the charge.) Regardless, we have to ‘put our money where our mouth is’.
It’s not all ‘Doom and Gloom’
Social media, along with other services, has its benefits in both the convenience and unforeseen opportunities it brings.
Our loss of privacy enabled the convenience of good matching between the world of content and us. The genius of Google is based on a search engine adapting to find the right information for you; the joy of Amazon is based on the ‘other users bought this’; the fun of Youtube is based on the ‘recommendations’; the beauty of Spotify is based on the ‘song discovery’ and finally the supposed crime of Facebook is based on the advertising of products that we want rather than being bombarded by random lawn mower or cat hair removal products. All of these services rely on us giving up personal data and in turn make our lives more convenient and
The unforeseen opportunities have often been focused on the nefarious uses by foreign governments like Russia in the US and Brexit votes. However, there are also positives to be had. Social media has been credited with playing a part in the Arab uprisings by enabling groups to gather and challenge their leaders, more here. As Melinda Gates highlighted in this podcast, GPS data collected from phones in rural vs urban areas is now providing important insights into where and how malaria spreads. This loss of privacy, if used well, has the potential to help millions.
A Tentative Conclusion
Facebook is a private company that will sell our data to the highest bidder and so far, companies have placed greater value on it than those whose data are being traded. Maybe this will change, and with it, Facebook’s real customers, but until then, don’t be surprised when the ‘free’ deal we rushed to sign blindly turns out to be ‘too good to be true’. On the bright side, we have the power to push for change and use this loss of privacy for good – how hard are you willing to push for this?
As a final thought, if you are disturbed by how much data Facebook has on you, think about how much Google does……
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