Do They Have Control?

I’ve had this thought in my head. A question, really. And I don’t know if there is or will be any answer for it. Maybe you can answer it.

But before I can ask the question to you, I need to set up some background. Get you to understand where I’m coming from. And so, here’s a blog post in three acts.

Act 1: A Hundred Different Hooks

Unless you’re a hermit who has spent the last twenty years in the Himalayas (in which case: Welcome to the new world! Trump is the US President), then you’ve probably used Facebook and Google. You may also be aware, at least vaguely, about how they track the activity of their users. Maybe you don’t know how deep this privacy rabbit hole goes. Or maybe you do, and either think it’s a fair trade off for the services they offer. Or maybe you’re one of the super paranoid ones that encrypt everything and browse only through Tor. Or you might be like me, standing somewhere in between.

Whichever way you swing, it is a plain and simple fact that these days, privacy on the internet takes some effort to achieve. Here’s a quick and dirty primer on some of the things that Google and Facebook do:

  • Like buttons in websites send information back to Facebook even if you don’t click. 1 2 3

  • Facebook analyzes not only what you do, but also what you don’t do. They can extrapolate a lot of information about you from what you clicked and didn’t click. (Facebook be like: This guy hesitates when he sees pictures of food and then scrolls away. He must be on a diet. Let’s bombard him with ads of diet supplements.)

  • I don’t know if you realize this but Google knows everything. And I mean EVERYTHING! Every time you do a Google search, or use Google maps, or Gmail, or Drive, or Youtube, or download an app from the Play Store, you are basically handing over information about you, which they then turn around and use to sell ads. Google is an advertising company with a bunch of hobbies. It’s their bread and butter. (You think you’re clever because you browse porn logged out on a private tab, but its not a far cry to imagine that Google can still connect your late night fetish searches to your profile)

This is just a small sampling. I encourage you to do your own research. And it’s not just Google and Facebook. Uber tracks your location for five minutes after your ride is done. So Uber now gets to know where you’re going even if you were dropped off elsewhere. Windows 10, by default, is set to share huge amounts of information to Microsoft. The list goes on and on.

And there’s very little we can do.

“But there are free-as-in-freedom alternatives”, the hardcore among you will be saying. But do you think the alternatives can provide the sheer convenience that these services offer to the common user? All these companies have their hooks sunk deep in all of us with no intention of letting go.

And for many of us, these are acceptable tradeoffs.

The fact is: these services are super useful. hey form a central part of today’s world and they won’t be giving up their positions anytime soon. And many people wouldn’t want them to either. Google and Facebook and others like it are world changing. Instant access to almost any information! Instant contact to almost any person anywhere, anytime! And you never needed to pay a dime! All this technology would’ve been wild science fiction to the average person 30 or 40 years ago. But we have it now. And all it costs is our data.

And we chose to pay it.

Act 2: We Made Our Choices

I’ve had a Facebook account since December 2009 and got a Gmail account a little later. If you count Gaia Online, I’ve had access to social media since late 2008. Point being, I’ve been here a while.

And in the early days, I was all in when it came to the social media game. I wrote status updates, uploaded photos, liked pages, commented on other people’s photos and statuses, the whole nine yards. And I enjoyed it, as unsociable as I was. I didn’t know or care about privacy issues at the time. Few of us did.

It wasn’t Facebook’s fault that I put all that information out there. They provided a nice platform for me to use and I chose to use it. Everything I did was of my own free will.

As much as I dislike and disagree with Facebook’s practices, I understand that they are a business first. They have an obligation to their shareholders and are simply trying to make the most out of a userbase of nearly 2 billion people, who are willingly putting their details out in public. The targeted advertising model keeps everyone happy. The shareholders are happy because the money keeps rolling in from the advertisers. The advertisers are happy because they get better results thanks to targeting. The users are happy because they can continue to use Facebook for free. Facebook is happy because they can continue to collect more information to target ads to the users and make more money because the users keeping using it.

If Facebook decided to give up their data collection and targeted advertising and be good guys and they choose to go for a subscription model where the users pay to keep the site running, 99.99% of the users or more would just pack up and leave. Facebook would crumble.

We, the users, as a collective decided early on that we wanted a Web where we don’t have to pay to access any website. We, the users, also chose to give our information to Facebook and Google and the rest. They never forced us. We gave it to them of our own free will. It was our choices that led to the advertiser driven, data collecting, user specific targeting model that we have today. We chose to give away our information freely. We chose to accept our information being collected as a fair price for a free internet. Maybe we didn’t realize what we were doing. We just liked free stuff, not really understanding what that cost us.

I’m not saying that the free internet that we have is a bad thing. Hell no! It’s fantastic. I wouldn’t be where I am now if Google had a subscription fee. I am simply pointing out that the free internet has forced websites to look for alternate means of making money to get some return for their work. Whatever they end up doing with our data, we only have ourselves to blame for giving it to them.

Act 3: Do they have control?

I don’t really have a point to make here. I only want to ask one question.

Do the children have control over their data?

Do you have children of your own, age 10,11ish or less? Children without the requisite skills to use the internet beyond a few mobile apps? What about young siblings? Or nieces and nephews?

I’m willing to bet you or someone else have taken pictures of them and put them up on Facebook. Maybe tagged their names on those photos, identifying them. Heck, they might even have Facebook accounts in their name managed by the parents. And even if you or anyone you know have never done this, you’ve probably seen it on your Facebook feed. Proud parents, with the help of the rest of the family, documenting almost every aspect of their young one’s lives.

I’ve had access to social media for close to 40 percent of my life. That’s a lot. But there are children now who weren’t alive when Facebook came into being. And many of them have their lives up on display online for the whole world to see.

For Facebook and Google and the rest to analyze and sell to the highest bidder.

And they were never given a choice in the matter.

If today’s children grow up and decide that they do not want their whole life to be lying around on the internet, do you think Facebook and Friends would just shrug and say “Okay, cool, whatever”? We are living in an unprecedented time, with data being collected right from the womb and beyond. Data like that is invaluable for those who profit off it. They wouldn’t want to give away their gold mine.

At least when parts of my life go online, I know I am making that decision. No one made it for me. I have always had full control. But what about the children of today? Do parents ask their permission before uploading a photo or a video of them? Can the children understand the nuances of privacy on the internet and carefully choose to grant or deny consent?

Children have a right to choose what happens with their data. If they are too young to choose then it is the responsibility of the legal guardian to take those actions that guarantee that the children get maximum control over their data when they are finally old enough to choose for themselves.

So I ask again: The children in your life… do they have control?