Determining Whether Free on the Internet Makes Someone the Product

“If it’s free on the Internet, you’re the product.” A lot of people have heard that phrase or some variant of it, but many rarely seem to have considered the implications of what it truly means, despite the amount of time they may spend using what’s monetarily free online. Perhaps unlike some well-known sayings, it is an important phrase for what it represents, and that makes it worth mentioning here.

The phrase obviously implies that something being free online actually presents the cost of it somehow taking advantage of the user. For example, Facebook’s core services cost no money to use, but using them has always come with the cost of being placed under high surveillance from Facebook. This surveillance leaves vast amounts of personal data in the corporation’s control, thereby making it vulnerable to exploitation.

In practice, that abuse of user data has been seen on numerous occasions — recently with the revelations that Cambridge Analytica built psychological profiles on 50 million Facebook users in order to “target their inner demons” and wrongly manipulate them with political advertisements. Also relevant is Facebook having allowed advertisers to unjustly target (discriminate against) people by ethnicity, Facebook’s experiment to manipulate the news feeds of nearly 700,000 users (without their consent) in an attempt to see much it could influence user emotions, the transfer of sensitive user Facebook data to the U.S. government (violating the Fourth Amendment) through the PRISM mass surveillance program, among other corporate misdeeds.

This is of course after Facebook’s CEO and founder said in 2009 that “What the terms say is just, we’re not going to share people’s information except for the people that they’ve asked for it to be shared.” That’s a striking quote considering that the vast majority of people obviously never wanted their information shared with other malicious corporations and the harmful parts of U.S. intelligence agencies.

Thus, avoiding being the product online clearly requires examining what you’re using and whether it’s using you, and if so, then how much. There are times when this is easier to decipher — some services have open source (available for public audit/review) software and others don’t. Even with closed source services though, there’s also more known about some than others — the pervasive surveillance done by Facebook is decently well known, for example.

It should be said that there’s a limited amount that most individual users should be blamed through all of this exploitation, however. Easily accessible knowledge of the sort in this article should be featured more prominently and implemented more, but it’s also important to simply press for the design of systems that limit exploitation much more than is currently allowed.

This shouldn’t only be additional options for cautious users either. As shown repeatedly with the default effect, a large amount of users will often opt use the default option that’s open to them, even if it’s considerably flawed compared to an alternative that requires a few extra clicks. It’s therefore important to have mechanisms such as stronger anti-exploitation laws, more resistant technology, and a structure of incentives for society that isn’t made to reward abuses (indeed, that is run much less by abuses) anywhere near as much as it currently is.

And from the pharmaceutical corporations that have been shown to have manufactured an opioid crisis through flooding economically downtrodden communities with highly addictive opioids to the labor standards (or lack of them) that allow for the exploitation of many employees, it’s clear that much of current society is built on abusive structures.

For individual users willing to invest some time though, there are valuable anti-exploit concepts that can be learned quickly. Concepts such as how to create stronger passwords (linked to here), find resources such as sites that quickly analyze terms of service, and how to do threat modeling can be immensely helpful and a good investment for the relatively low time it takes to learn them. It’s part of what’s needed if society is to be improved and if many more people are to stop being the product online.

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