Current Events, Just musing

The Face of Privacy in an Online World

With social media reigning supreme, taking in the majority of Internet traffic next to Netflix, I’ve been wondering if these young innovators ever saw their creations becoming what they are today. Do you think Jack Dorsey ever saw Twitter being used as the preferred method of a United States President’s direct communication tool? Or Mark Zuckerberg ever thinking someday he’d be dragged into congressional hearings over a platform he created to essentially gawk at college girls?

Facebook began in Zuckerberg’s dorm room. He noticed male friends looking at women on the Internet they did not know. Zuckerberg wondered if his classmates would be interested instead at looking at women they did know. What if fellow female classmates at Harvard posted their own lives online, complete with pictures? Wouldn’t that be more enticing?

That was the origin of Facebook and it’s since blossomed into billions of users, gawking at everyone they friended whether they personally know them or not. The whole purpose of Facebook is to post what you’ve been doing, where your interests lie, what you look like and how you’re likely to vote. There’s really no special algorithm needed to see this (unless you need to scoop up large amounts of data). You don’t even have to be considered friends. All you have to do is review what people publicly post which is astonishingly quite a lot.

In my humble feed of friends and followers, I see people give up the most intimate details of their lives willingly. During the 2016 election (the first presidential election I’ve been on Facebook) I could tell you who was voting for who because they told me and everyone else who followed them.

Facebook and social media in general work like this. It’s the default setting. Its very purpose is to share the who, what, where, why and how of your life. And you aren’t forced to join the network. You do so willingly, voluntarily post what you want and in exchange for doing all this for free, you see ads surrounding your feed of things you might be interested in.

And then there are the apps that plug into this interface. There’s a whole host of quizzes users can take and after completing all the questions, it’ll tell you which movie star you’re likely to date, what Marvel Universe character you are, how friendly or not your friends see you, how likely you’re going to get married in the next year or…anything. These useless quizzes are no better (or entertaining) than carnival predictions but people take them and share them. And they’re free.

Facebook interfaces with games too. And they’re free. In fact, everything life needs seems to be available on Facebook. You can join groups to converse with people sharing similar interests, confirm attendance or interest in events, share memories of posts past memories, create a page for your business or interests or charities or fund raise or job hunt or order food or everything. Facebook has become a portal lots of people never have to leave. And it’s free.

I keep using that word. What does it mean?

My friend and partner here at FreedomCocktail notes that if something is free, you can be sure YOU are the product. I agree. I usually say it as, “This is what free looks like”.

Facebook can’t pay the bills of all its employees, services, equipment and maintenance with free. Saying Facebook is free is like people asking for free healthcare. Nothing is truly free. Somehow, it has to be paid for.

The ad based model is what Facebook relies on to pay the bills. And it uses your likes and interests to help third parties so that the ads you see are relevant. I’m okee doke with this. I’d rather see ads for things I might want. How is this a bad thing? I’m currently in the market to purchase a paddle board. I’ve been searching paddle board models and accessories as of late. And since then, my Facebook feed shows paddle boards and accessories. This is great. Would the naysayers be happy if instead, my feed were filled with cat food and Tampax?

At any rate, you can easily opt out of all this by simply not using Facebook. No one is forcing you to. And it’s not necessary despite what some may say about turning it into a utility. Facebook is probably the email killer that we predicted in the 1990s. Someday more innovating people will come around to replace Facebook and we’ll all move to that. Remember MySpace?

Twenty-years ago, when I was feeling my own way around the Internet, the big deal was when an email would be made public. The rule that was suggested back then was that if you wouldn’t put it on a postcard, you shouldn’t put it in an email. The same rule should apply to social media, reddit, comments at a news site or anywhere else you don’t specifically control what happens to the data. And always, always assume that data you don’t control will be seen by people you don’t know and probably use in ways you’ll never know about. The only sure way of avoiding this is to unplug from the Internet and shack up in a cabin in the woods without electricity.

What is really more damning here are the United States congressional hearings regarding Facebook. This is especially true since Facebook services the entire world. As Zuckerberg said in the hearings, Facebook services ninety-perfect outside the United States. How is a local (United States) decision after all this going to trickle into what other countries do?

This issue boils down to user data being used without their consent. The problem is with a third party company called Cambridge Alalytica that created an app that told users it was a personality test. People, obtaining it via Facebook, took the test and then the data mined was used, without their consent, by the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

Because of this, congress is now holding hearings on how to keep people’s data on Facebook (and presumably elsewhere) safe from unwanted eyes. And what do we know happens when government shows up to help you? The opposite happens. I guarantee nothing is going to change except Facebook will be forced to enact new government mandated regulations someone somewhere will get around.

Before I get to how we can actually make a difference, let me note my biggest concern here is wondering how this is a problem for the federal government. In 2004, there was this big scandal with steroids being used in professional baseball. Congress held hearings on that. There have been hearings on child welfare and support programming, hearings on Graduate Medical Education, Office Supply Scams, Affordable Housing , Establishing the National Museum of the American Latino and oddly enough, during the 105th congress, hearings on Consequences of Information Technology Failure. And yet here we are, twenty-years later doing it again.

The point is that Congress is once again meddling where it has no Constitutional authority and will have no affect. Because the Internet is one big mouse and the government is an old concept trap that won’t catch it. It’s odd that it’s complaining about a company that started with the express purpose of spying on people who willingly give up personal information. Zuckerberg told us what it was for and now we act like we’re mad about it. But instead of congressional hearings that are bound to do nothing, I have a better idea.

For those who still didn’t get it about how Facebook works, now you do. Now you know any information you put on Facebook is fair game (even if they say it isn’t). So if you don’t like it, leave. It’s that simple. Go somewhere else. Like any other product, if you don’t like the service, go elsewhere.

The free market will take care of Facebook. If people don’t care that much (as I don’t) about what Facebook allows regarding user data, it will continue to run free with ads to pay the bills. But if enough people leave Facebook for other apps and services, Facebook will change. That’s how the free market works. Let Facebook and its users guide the behemoth. And if the end game is complete replacement by the next big thing, so be it. If we rely on government to “fix” it, we’ll end up with a subpar product no one wants to be part of but feels forced to be. Facebook will be the Department of Motor Vehicles for the Internet Highway, complete with the worst potholes you ever crashed through.

ADDENDUM

The argument’s been floated that Zuckerberg is only being brought before Congress because the use of its data helped get Donald Trump elected. But Obama did it too and yet, no Congressional hearings back then. Why? The argument goes “Obama used Facebook data in 2012, Trump used Facebook data in 2016, but only Trump gets harassed about it”. And this statement is right. But here’s why Obama’s use was different and why Congress took no action back then.

The Obama Campaign had a special election app that users opted into and knew they were giving permission for their Facebook data to be used in a political campaign. And, they knew it was for the express purpose of re-electing Barack Obama.

The data mined that helped Trump wasn’t by similar means.

Cambridge Alalytica created an app that was “sold” as a personality test to be used for academic purposes. People opting in, taking the test, had no idea their Facebook data was then sold to a political campaign (Trump, Cruz and others) to target ads.

The problem that got Zuckerberg in hot water is what happened to that data after using it for the purpose it was originally intended. It’s like this, imagine filling out forms buying a new car, giving personal information to the car company. And then that company selling your information to third parties. Unless you were specifically told about third-party sales, it’s a no-no.

Obama’s app worked as intended. The data used by Trump was used as unintended. Thus, now we have congressional hearings.

 

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