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Companies have been selling our data in exchange for ‘free’ products and services for a long time – Facebook’s not so different

It is the explicit selling-on of our data, as opposed to the buying of our space of mind, that sticks in the craw. Suddenly instead of being a Facebook customer, people have become a Facebook product

Hamish McRae
Saturday 07 April 2018 19:50 BST
Mark Zuckerberg admits ‘my mistake’ as 87m Facebook users could have seen data accessed by Cambridge Analytica

Let’s forget for a moment about the Facebook scandal, though if you are one of the million-plus Britons who have had their data sold on, someone else remembers a whole lot about you.

Think instead about your mobile phone. It knows who you are. It knows where you are and if you have a contract, where you live. It knows who you connect with. It knows a lot about what you buy and it probably knows what you look like. That is just for starters. We accept that as normal because of the convenience it offers. We know the deal.

Now think about identity cards. In most developed countries you have to carry them on you. In the UK we don’t, because of political objections to it by at various times all major parties. So we have cobbled together a system of ID, with proof of age cards, driving licences, passports and so on. Add in all the other cards we carry, credit cards, club cards, library cards, office ID, etc, all of which represent information about us, and you see that somewhere or other there is a vast amount of personal data floating around. (I am carrying 19 cards in my wallet at the moment. Gulp.) But this too we accept as normal.

What we find hard to accept, and this is why Facebook has stumbled, is that this data should be sold on for profit. Facebook has accumulated huge amounts of data that have been willingly, even enthusiastically, given to it. Most people accept that they will see adverts in exchange for a “free” service. That is after all a familiar relationship – you buy a magazine and you expect to see advertisements for goods or services that would be of interest to the people who choose to read it.

There is a twist to this. Even if the product is free, as for example is our sister paper the Evening Standard, we still are happy to read it and look at the ads as we do so. The advertisers have, so to speak, “bought” our eyeballs, but we feel no resentment. The same long-tested relationship exists when we watch television, look at a billboard, or get a brochure through our front door. We know the deal.

It is the explicit selling-on of our data, as opposed to the buying of our space of mind, that sticks in the craw. Suddenly, instead of being a Facebook customer, people have become a Facebook product, all 2.2 billion of them, to be sold on to whatever advertiser paid to present a product or service. Now you may say that people were naive to think that their data was not being sold, and I personally have never gone on Facebook. But the history of all radically new products or services shows that consumers need to be protected by the relevant authorities. That is why we have safety standards for trains, cars, and aircraft.

So what will happen with Facebook?

The company faces two other challenges, aside from privacy. The first, which has rightly received huge attention, is that these American titans will have to pay more tax in the countries in which they operate. The second, which is starting to attract more attention, is that any company that dominates its market, as does Facebook, will be regulated as a de facto monopoly.

These issues ought to be separate, but because this is politics, they won’t. The main challenge to Facebook will come from Europe, largely because there is resentment on the continent that their particular segment of global economic activity should be dominated by America. (China created its own social networks, copying – Donald Trump would say stealing – US practice.)

So Facebook is attacked on three counts: tax, monopoly, and privacy. Tax and monopoly are government issues. Privacy is different, for though governments can and will take action, we can do so ourselves.

Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, has acknowledged that if they don’t want their data sold to advertisers, users will have to pay for the service. As the New York Post put it:

“Want privacy on Facebook? Cough up some cash.”

There is a distinction between authorised sale of data and unauthorised leaks of it. There is a distinction between data used by academics for social research and that used by people to sell you soap powder.

And I suppose there is a distinction between selling you soap powder and the ideas of a political party, though to my cynical mind the main difference is that with the first you know what you are getting and the second you don’t. But the harsh message of all this is that we are moving to a world where privacy is pretty much dead.

People with enough money can buy a modicum of online privacy rather in the same way they can live in gated communities. But for most of us, we have to accept that pretty much everything is transparent, and will be so for the foreseeable future. My mobile phone knows where I am as I sit and write this. But so what?

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