But why should I care? So long as Google Assistant can provide me with better answers, and Facebook can help me find long-lost friends, how does it make any matter? Advertising, after all, is an important part of their business model. Without advertising these services would not be free. Would you want to live in a world like that?
If you are like me, your life revolves around the Internet. Everyday, we are bombarded with hilarious memes, disheartening news, and trashy pop songs as we traverse through the Interwebs. Yet, as we navigate through our digital journey, we leave digital breadcrumbs along our path. With every website we visit, YouTube rabbit hole we fall down, meme we upvote, and comment we make, we drop behind one more crumb.
And there are multi-billion dollar corporations that work meticulously just to pick these crumbs up.
But why would anybody care about my crumbs?
Storytime it is.
Starting January 11, 2012, Facebook ran an experiment on its users. About 700,000 users, chosen randomly, had their News Feed tweaked with. Some of them were shown posts that were judged by an algorithm as being “happier” than average, while others were shown posts judged as being “sadder” than average. This human lab-rat experiment continued for a week. At the end of their data collection, they analysed over 3 million posts, containing some 122 million words. And what did they find?
“The results show emotional contagion. As Fig. 1 illustrates, for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred. These results suggest that the emotions expressed by friends, via online social networks, influence our own moods, constituting, to our knowledge, the first experimental evidence for massive-scale emotional contagion via social networks and providing support for previously contested claims that emotions spread via contagion through a network.”
When this story became available to the public, it sparked a fiery debate about its ethicality. Researchers from Facebook, Cornell, and a researcher from Princeton involved at different stages of publishing the research paper, have all made their respective statements. (click here)
But it didn’t end there. The internet tore into Facebook with questions. Why was an independent ethics committee consulted only way after the experiment was already underway? How did an experiment like this ever pass the Facebook’s so-called “internal review process”? Because, that was not the only thing they set out to prove.
We also observed a withdrawal effect: People who were exposed to fewer emotional posts (of either valence) in their News Feed were less expressive overall on the following days, addressing the question about how emotional expression affects social engagement online.
In simple words, posts that were not emotionally charged lowered engagement on Facebook’s website- meaning Facebook has an incentive to display more emotional posts, even if it comes at the cost of the cold hard truth.
All of this raises one big dilemma – what if, all of us are, right now, a part of such an experiment, with Facebook playing with our emotions? This research paper was published first on June 2, 2014, two whole years after the experiment’s completion. Would we even know? Are we really comfortable putting 2.4 billion human beings at the risk of emotional manipulation by a soulless technology empire?
Since then, the methods in the study have been questioned. The Atlantic reports that according to John Grohol, “the study’s methods are hampered by the misuse of tools: Software better matched to analyze novels and essays, he says, is being applied toward the much shorter texts on social networks.”
Facebook executives did not apologize for the incident.
Most of all, it is important to understand that the only way to prevent such initiatives from getting more invasive is by safeguarding our privacy. In 2014, they might have been judging your emotion based on your status updates. Who knows what they’re tracking now? Your likes? Shares? Comments? Your friend circle? Whatever it may be, one thing is clear: the answer does not lie in surrendering more and more personal data to a big company.
The Big Five
The Big Five of the Internet: Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, and Google – function essentially as the gatekeepers of the tech world. A common dare floated around in internet communities is a challenge to spend an entire day on the Internet without the Big Five. Most people fail this challenge. It seems entirely impossible.
A crucial idea to keep in mind is that in the current design, companies don’t take actions based of their conscience. Most companies are profit-making machines and exist solely to serve the interests of their shareholders. Therefore, trusting a company is a mistake unless their business interests align with yours.
Therefore, as important as worrying about the concentration of power in the hands of these “self-anointed gatekeepers of the Internet” is, it is critical to not forget the incentives that drive this behavior: the misalignment of consumer and business interests.
It is no surprise, then that each one of them has a long history of violating digital privacy rights. It is also no surprise, that each one of them has their own bizarre justifications for doing what they do. But you don’t have to trust me. Just look at how their business interests operate and how that has informed their decisions in the past.
To understand just how much power Google possesses, simply consider all the data they have on you.
Google knows every single place you’ve visited, mail you’ve sent, video you’ve watched, every agenda item on your calendar, every search you’ve performed, picture you’ve shot, phone you’ve had, and app you’ve installed. If you use Google Drive to backup youre data, they have your files, if you use Google News, they know the issues you care about, and finally if you use an Android phone, they also know when and which apps you opened, and approximately how much time you spent on each.
And that’s just all the data they say they have. With the omnipresent nature of Google Ad’s services, Chrome’s tracking of browser history, and YouTube’s takeover of video on the Internet, it is not even a stretch of the imagination to say they know every single place you have ever been on the Internet.
And don’t presume that Google is some high-minded virtuous entity. Just like any other company, they value corporate profits over anything else.
Google has proven this time and time again. It remained complicit with the Chinese governments requests for censorship into all searches, therefore standing quietly by and minting money while they watched the privacy and security of millions erode. They helped the government actively block search terms related to peace and human rights-proving that they cared more about their own profit.
Google continues to aggressively establish its monopoly over the tech world, and for many people (in combination with Facebook) is essentially their entire Internet experience. Google today controls about 75% of the smartphone OS market with Android, 62% of the browser market with Chrome, and an astonishing 92% of the search market with Google Search.
And Google’s violations only make sense given their business model. Google makes a vast majority of all their revenue from advertising. Targeted advertising depends on the collection of data from millions of unsuspecting users, who will trade the illusion of convenience for privacy. This core business model divorces Google from the notion of respecting digital privacy, and forces them to agressively expand their market even if it means monopolistic practises and ignorance of digital rights.
To visualize what Facebook know about your psyche, simply consider all the data they have on you.
If you, like 2.32 billion fellow earthlings, have a Facebook profile, I am sorry to break it to you-but just like Google, Facebook too has been quietly feasting their eyes on you.
Facebook knows every post you’ve liked, every comment you’ve made, friend you’ve added, the contents and metadata of every status update you uploaded, or even personal chat message you sent. It also knows your political values, alumni associations, and all the other personal information you might have added to your profile – your place of work, place of birth and college. And no, it doesn’t stop there. Facebook also owns WhatsApp, which gives it access to every single contact you have on your phone (with your prior permission) – and possibly the metadata of your conversations (only the actual conversations are encrypted), and your status updates.
And that’s just the information you provide Facebook, and they say they have. Which is why, you shouldn’t for a second imagine that you are off the hook if you’ve never used Facebook. Chances are that one of you many friends unwittingly gave away your real name, your e-mail address and your phone number when they connected their contacts to their Facebook profile. Chances also are that you unwittingly allow Facebook trackers and cookies follow you across the Internet as they scrape off an intimate understanding of your personality. This data often belongs to those who have never consented to any Facebook privacy agreement in their life, and is stored in what are popularly known as “shadow profiles”. What’s particularly sinister about these is just how opaque they are – we can neither see what’s in them, and nor does Facebook give us the option of deleting them.
And do I even need to provide any more evidence?
Unless you live under a rock, you would have seen Facebook in the news a lot this year – and for all the wrong reasons. From fake news, hate speech, allegations of aiding election manipulation, and the #DeleteFacebook campaign, the public perception of Facebook is at an all-time low.
Facebook never started off with honorable aspirations – but now their monopolistic desires seem to have come to the forefront. Out of the top 6 social media platforms ranked by monthly users, 4 are owned by Facebook (Facebook, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram), the largest of which has 2.32 billion active monthly users as of April 2019.
What this means is that Facebook, with a business model based almost solely on advertising faces no responsibility for moderating their actions while trying to enrich their products. And this setup breeds a ripe environment for the erosion of digital right-something that Facebook has shown impunity while violating.
And these were just two examples- Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft also remained much reviled names in digital rights circles – and for good reason. Apple uses privacy as a marketing stunt, while continuing to double-deal consumers behind their backs. Windows 10 has been sending data to Microsoft for ages at this point. Finally, Amazon has had to deal with scathing privacy concerns over Alexa and Ring. Furthemore, all of these but Amazon were involved in the NSA’s PRISM program.
The bigger picture here is this: these companies have bloated to gargantuan sizes. They also no longer have business models that align with the public interest.
This is the issue. An issue only amplified by their sheer impact on the digital world.
Data is a curious thing. It is nothing short of a seemingly random series of ones and zeros imprinted in our hard drives. Yet, each passing day, we entrust more and more to data. Bank transactions. Health records. Birth and death certificates. Because, as it turns out, these crumbs speak a lot more about ourselves then we can hope to imagine.
Data is also fickle. It bares no loyalty or origin. It slithers between servers. Your computer. Your ISP. Ad services. Social media networks. Third-party apps. These make just a minute fraction of servers containing data that can be linked directly back to you.
And increasingly, data is powerful. Everyone says information is the new currency. If so, the internet is at the forefront of distributing this currency. Emotion manipulation. Facial detection. Election tinkering. Combine the brute force of large data-sets and adroitness of algorithms to sift through and learn from them, and it’s might can be astonishing.
Checks and balances form the basis of democracy. No one individual or corporation must be allowed to reign supreme, without some system to regulate their power. The erosion of digital privacy has, allowed corporations and governments to create such a system which betrays these very ideals.