If it’s free online, you are the product
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s recent testimony to congress highlights one of the key issues of our time – data acquisition by digital corporations and its lack of regulation. The kernel of the issue is in this exchange:
Senator Orrin Hatch: ‘How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?’
Zuckerberg: “Senator, we run ads.”
So – ha ha. Let’s laugh at the old guy who doesn’t know how Facebook makes money. The exchange spawned memes that compared Zuckerberg going to congress with people doing tech support for their grandparents.
But this question and its answer expose a conceptual disconnect between the old world and the new. Senator Orrin Hatch asks, quite innocently, if you’re providing a service, how can you do that for free? The answer is, Facebook is not just in the business of providing you with a service. It is also in the business of farming your data.
Your life for sale
Media theorist and writer Douglas Rushkoff was among the first to point this out back in 2011. With Facebook you are the product, not the customer.
Facebook’s customers are advertisers and it has built a platform that is designed to help advertisers target customers – forensically. This is not confined to the data you enter into Facebook either. It also includes the data you “tread” into Facebook when you arrive. The purchases you’ve made, the searches you’ve conducted.
In a sense, that is all that Cambridge Analytica did. They used Facebook to target specific users with content in exactly the way the platform was designed. It wasn’t selling a bag with lots of cool pockets though. It was selling Trump and Brexit.
It is only now, when we are finally looking at the manipulation of culture rather than purchasing choices, that we are beginning to question the ethical ambiguity of this model. The model where you and your data are the product.
Regulation is the next step
No wonder Zuckerberg looked like a deer caught in the headlights in front of congress, even if the questioning is inept and toothless. This is the beginning of a process. A process that could end with transformative, stringent regulation of his business practice or, at the very least, a fight between Facebook and governments over that regulation.
But there’s a problem with this. It’s not just Facebook. With any service that you use online that is free – including all Google services (Docs, Gmail, Search) all social media services (Snapchat, WhatsApp, Twitter) and even Hotmail – your data is the product. Once we start to pull on this thread, once old folks like Senator Orrin Hatch begin to realise just how deeply embedded data harvesting, retargeting, cookie sharing and other ethically ambiguous practices are in digital marketing, where will that take us?
Of course, there will inevitably be discussion of regulation. But who will be responsible for that? In which nation states will the crimes be deemed to have taken place? And will these corporations respect or accept this regulation when it is formulated?
We are talking about the most powerful corporations on the face of the Earth. Alphabet, Microsoft, Facebook – even Amazon which uses data for personalisation and targeting – are all in the world top ten by market value.
Notice that although Zuckerberg has testified before congress, Cambridge Analytica is located in the UK. He deems himself so above UK law and its institutions that he has refused to testify to a UK parliamentary select committee – three times. As inevitable as the discussion of regulation is, very little may actually be done.
Facebook may tighten up its privacy controls and user interface. Google will sigh with relief, because it wasn’t them this time, and you’ll continue to download those apps. Apps that suck up your location data, your Facebook profile and then match you to events that you’ll enjoy in your area based on smoke and mirrors.