Why it’s not just about being the product

Surely one of the most mentioned quotes in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook story is “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” While it’s been said about everything from TVs to automotive black boxes, in Facebook’s case it applies to the extensive personal data it collects from and about their users and how it analyzes and packages it in precise demographic groups so that advertisers can pitch users anything from shoes to candidates. 

Facebook trying to show me that the world is better with it in it.

Users have long been accustomed to getting services for free on the Internet, without really understanding their true cost. Google’s entire business model is to build products that delight users and are extremely useful, while using data collected from users of those services to serve ads that are “more relevant” to them. 

Yet what started as simple contextual advertising based on what users searched for and basic demographic targeting has evolved into Facebook having 29,000 data points for every user, tracking users wherever they go on the web and on their phone, both virtually and geographically, and aggregating those points into very specific groups such as video game players who are likely to spend on in-app purchases or even users interested in health issues such as “diagnosis with HIV or AIDS… erectile dysfunction, and binge-eating disorder awareness.” Cambridge Analytica made its decisions on who to target for the 2016 elections by building a behavioral model based on the analysis of seemingly unrelated data points: “researchers had figured out how to tie your interest in Kim Kardashian West to certain personality traits, such as how extroverted you are (very), how conscientious (more than most) and how open-minded (only somewhat). And when your fondness for Ms. Kardashian West is combined with other interests you’ve indicated on Facebook, researchers believe their algorithms can predict the nuances of your political views with better accuracy than your loved ones.”

That detailed and actionable information is a boon for advertisers and gets results. Which is why when asked at yesterday’s hearing “are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?” Mr Zuckerberg declined to answer.

It’s in some ways discouraging to think, as a user, just how pervasive personal data collection is, even when the product itself isn’t free. To use a Mac, a PC, or a mobile phone, products far from free, users are still required to agree to data collection. 23andMe sell genetic testing kits and sells that data to universities and pharmaceutical companies for research, Sonos sells high-end speakers and also collects listening and activity data, and Fitbit sells fitness trackers and also collects exercise data.  Tesla, and other car manufacturers, sell expensive cars and also collect driving data, including video. So the entire “if you’re not paying for it” qualifier is irrelevant. In the age of big data, the user is always the product, even when they pay.  

It’s wrong to blame users for this and insist that they entered this agreement freely and willingly and gave their consent when they started using the product. It’s not that clear cut.

  • There is almost no flexibility for users, it’s either accept all the terms and conditions or not use the product. Though some companies, including Facebook, give users some privacy and data options, users cannot opt out of most data collection.
  • Users don’t understand the data being collected, its breadth and its depth. It’s not their fault, it’s hidden in 30-40 page legal documents for most sites, through Google and Facebook are trying to use a friendlier language. It’s also intentionally vague. It “may include” some things and often provides a simplistic example of data categories with “such as..” which are generally the more benign applications.
  • It’s not really a choice for many people. For Facebook, there are professional, academic, NGOs, and community groups that use the platform is their only means of communication, where members have no choice but to sign up. For other products, such as fitness trackers – there isn’t an alternative that doesn’t collect and make use of data. (Maybe that can become a selling point in the future: be the product that doesn’t collect data, the user owns it all.) At some point users have bought the product and want to start using it. They may not have an option to return it at that point if they don’t like the terms and conditions.

With all that, is it even possible to say that users have given their informed consent? I think the answer is clearly no, which is why, understandably, Americans think that they have lost control of their personal data. It’s not that they don’t care, it’s that they don’t feel they can change it. The anger right now around Facebook seems like a major turning point in terms of awareness, but it also seems that change won’t come from within. Personal data is just too valuable.

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