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.

Post of Recent Noteworthy Facebook Criticisms

Facebook deserves heavy criticism for allowing the exploitation of data by corporations such as Cambridge Analytica, which — according to the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie — built psychological profiles on 50 million Facebook users in order to “target their inner demons” and wrongly manipulate them with political advertisements. I’ve been critical of Facebook for several years though, and I know much of importance about it that the corporate mass media has missed, such as 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.

Facebook has also made a selling point to advertisers that it can identify when teenagers are feeling “worthless” and “insecure,” which of course is a widespread teenage vulnerability that allows for exploitation. Facebook has let advertisers discriminate against people by ethnicity before, it has near pointlessly asked victims of revenge porn to send it their nude photos (letting Facebook employees view them and maybe abuse them), and it has supported the recent Cloud Act that allows for significant violations of consumer privacy by police, among many other outrages. While it’s useful that Facebook has helped some people forge meaningful connections, that doesn’t have to come at the high costs of personal exploitation that the corporate has allowed and still allows.

Article: As Feds Launch Probe, Users Discover ‘Horrifying’ Reach of Facebook’s Data Mining

As the fallout from Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal continued on Monday with the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) announcement that it is conducting a long-overdue probe into the tech giant’s privacy practices, many Facebook users are only now discovering the astonishing and in some cases downright “creepy” reach of the platform’s data-mining operations, which form the foundation of its business model.

After a New Zealand man named Dylan McKay called attention in a viral tweet last week to the alarming fact that Facebook had collected his “entire call history” with his partner’s mother and “metadata about every text message [he’s] ever received or sent,” other Facebook users began downloading their archive of personal data the social media giant had stored and discovered that McKay’s experience was hardly anomalous.

Based on the stories of a number of users who shared their experiences and data, Ars Technica concluded in an explosive report published on Saturday that Facebook has been scraping call and text message data from Android phones “for years.”

While the social media giant insisted in a statement that it only collects such data with permission—which is usually requested during the process of installing particular apps such as Messenger—Ars noted that this claim “contradicts the experience of several users who shared their data,” including McKay.

Other articles that have appeared recently are linked to below here.

South Korea fines Facebook $369K for slowing user internet connections

73% of Canadians to change Facebook habits after data mining furor, survey suggests

More than #DeleteFacebook

Facebook’s Surveillance Machine

No one can pretend Facebook is just harmless fun any more

Ex-Facebook president Sean Parker: site made to exploit human ‘vulnerability’

Cambridge Analytica Files

Big Tobacco is Increasingly Targeting the Most Vulnerable to Boost Profits

This is simply exploitation of the vulnerable for profit, using arguably the most dangerous consumer products (cigarettes) ever made no less.

The sixth edition of The Tobacco Atlas and its companion website TobaccoAtlas.org finds the tobacco industry is increasingly targeting vulnerable populations in emerging markets, such as Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, where people are not protected by strong tobacco control regulations. The report was released at the 17th World Congress on Tobacco OR Health in Cape Town, South Africa.

The Atlas, which is co-authored by American Cancer Society (ACS) and Vital Strategies, graphically details the scale of the tobacco epidemic around the globe. It shows where progress has been made in tobacco control, and describes the latest products and tactics being deployed by the tobacco industry to grow its profits and delay or derail tobacco control efforts. In response to an evolving tobacco control landscape, the Sixth Edition includes new chapters on regulating novel products, partnerships, tobacco industry tactics and countering the industry.

In 2016 alone, tobacco use caused over 7.1 million deaths worldwide (5.1 million in men, 2.0 million in women). Most of these deaths were attributable to cigarette smoking, while 884,000 were related to secondhand smoke. The increase in tobacco-related disease and death has been outpaced by the increase in industry profits. The combined profits of the world’s biggest tobacco companies exceeded US $62.27 billion in 2015, the last year on record for all the major companies. This is equivalent to US $9,730 for the death of each smoker, an increase of 39% since the last Atlas was published, when the figure stood at US$7,000.

“Every death from tobacco is preventable, and every government has the power reduce the human and economic toll of the tobacco epidemic,” said Jeffrey Drope, PhD, co-editor and author of The Atlas and Vice President, Economic and Health Policy Research at the American Cancer Society. “It starts by resisting the influence of the industry and implementing proven tobacco control policies. The Atlas shows that progress is possible in every region of the world. African countries in particular are at a critical point — both because they are targets of the industry but also because many have opportunity to strengthen policies and act before smoking is at epidemic levels.”

“Tobacco causes harm at every stage of its life cycle, from cultivation to disposal,” said Dr. Neil Schluger, Vital Strategies’ Senior Advisor for Science and co-editor and author of The Atlas. “It is linked to an ever-increasing list of diseases, burdens health systems, and exacerbates poverty, especially when a breadwinner falls ill and dies from tobacco use. At a conservative estimate, there are more than 7 million tobacco-related deaths and global economic costs of two trillion dollars (PPP) each year, not including costs such as those caused by second-hand smoke and the environmental and health damages of tobacco farming. The only way to avert this harm is for all governments to vigorously implement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and to enforce the proven strategies that reduce tobacco use.”

Tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke costs the global economy more than two trillion dollars (PPP) every year — equivalent to almost 2% of the world’s total economic output. More than 1.1 billion people are current smokers, while 360 million people use smokeless tobacco. Low and middle income countries represent over 80% of tobacco users and tobacco-related deaths, placing an increased share of tobacco-related costs on those who can least afford it. A growing proportion of that burden will fall on countries across Africa in the future, if governments do not implement tobacco control policies now to prevent it.

[…]

“The ultimate path to improved tobacco control is political will,” said José Luis Castro, President and CEO, Vital Strategies. “Strong tobacco control policies deliver a significant return on investment, and The Tobacco Atlas offers the best and most recent data on the tobacco epidemic as a resource for governments to pursue effective strategies. The answer does not lie with the industry: as The Atlas makes clear, there is a complete disconnect between the tobacco industry’s claims about harm reduction and its actual work to grow tobacco use among vulnerable populations. Governments must be accountable to their citizens in reducing tobacco use and improving health. They must prepare to rebuff the tobacco industry’s challenges to legislation, seek the appropriate assistance to build capacity, and be transparent about the industry’s inevitable approaches. We urge governments, advocates, organizations and people who care about health, the environment and development to stand together to reduce this man-made epidemic in pursuit of a healthier planet.”

World’s Richest Become $1 Trillion Richer in 2017

The richest 500 people would still have enormous amounts of money if they together hadn’t gained $1 trillion, of course. There’s plenty that could be done to improve the lives of many millions of people with that $1 trillion too, and it’s disappointing how much of it continues to sit idle when it could be invested productively instead.

The richest people on earth became $1 trillion richer in 2017, more than four times last year’s gain, as stock markets shrugged off economic, social and political divisions to reach record highs.

The 23 percent increase on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a daily ranking of the world’s 500 richest people, compares with an almost 20 percent increase for both the MSCI World Index and Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
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It should also be noted that the stock market measures the expected value of future corporate profits, not economic well-being for most people. The stock market is an accurate indication of how well the top 1 percent are doing, however, as they’re the people who stock ownership tends to be concentrated in.

Horrible Labor Conditions at Amazon Warehouses

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would sell at least a few hundred million dollars of his Amazon stock and grant it to Amazon workers if he actually cared much about them. He could also do a lot to improve working conditions at Amazon, but he is a prominent example of corporate greed in today’s world for a reason. The world’s richest person treating his exploited workers like garbage is truly an ongoing moral outrage.

Alan Selby went undercover at the firm’s Tilbury warehouse in Essex where ambulances are regularly called and where workers face the sack if they fail to pack at least two items per minute

Alone in a locked metal cage, 10 feet from my nearest colleague, a robot approaches from the shadows and thrusts a tower of shelves towards me.

I have nine seconds to grab and process an item to be sent for packing – a target of 300 items an hour, for hour after relentless hour.

As I bend to the floor then reach high above my head to fulfil a never-ending stream of orders, my body screams at me.

Welcome to Amazon’s picking floor. Here, while cameras watch my every move, a screen in front of me offers constant reminders of my “units per hour” and exactly how long each has taken.

This is the online giant’s biggest European packing plant, set to be shipping 1.2 million items a year.

As the UK’s top retailer, it made £7.3billion last year alone. But a Sunday Mirror investigation today reveals that success comes at a price – the daily ordeal of its workers.

I spent five weeks at the firm’s newest warehouse in Tilbury, Essex, armed with a secret camera bought from Amazon’s own website.

I found staff asleep on their feet, exhausted from toiling for up to 55 hours a week.

Those who could not keep up with the punishing targets faced the sack – and some who buckled under the strain had to be attended to by ambulance crews.

[…]

Across Italy and Germany staff have gone on strike, complaining of low pay and poor conditions.

And employees at UK warehouses have told of sleeping in tents and under bridges just to get to work on time.

Timed toilet breaks, impossible targets and exhausting, “intolerable” working conditions are frequent complaints. Staff have been paid less than the living wage, and it even emerged drivers had faced fines for “early” deliveries.

As experts warn of workers facing an increased risk of mental and physical illness, Amazon repeatedly promised to clean up its act. But a whiteboard in the plant for staff comments suggests it has far to go.

There were complaints of filthy toilets and breaks still too short.

One asked: “Why are we not allowed to sit when it is quiet and not busy? We are human beings, not slaves and animals.”