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.

FCC Votes to Dismantle Net Neutrality

Despite the immense supermajority public support for net neutrality, the U.S. Congress under Republican control doesn’t look like it will reverse the FCC’s decision either. Giving ISPs power to slow, block, and charge more for select Internet services is really going to enrage a lot of people in the coming months, and this will hopefully damage congressional Republican chances in 2018.

The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to dismantle rules regulating the businesses that connect consumers to the internet, granting broadband companies the power to potentially reshape Americans’ online experiences.

The agency scrapped the so-called net neutrality regulations that prohibited broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service or certain content. The federal government will also no longer regulate high-speed internet delivery as if it were a utility, like phone service.

The action reversed the agency’s 2015 decision, during the Obama administration, to have stronger oversight over broadband providers as Americans have migrated to the internet for most communications. It reflected the view of the Trump administration and the new F.C.C. chairman that unregulated business will eventually yield innovation and help the economy.

It will take weeks for the repeal to go into effect, so consumers will not see any of the potential changes right away. But the political and legal fight started immediately. Numerous Democrats on Capitol Hill called for a bill that would reestablish the rules, and several Democratic state attorneys general, including Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, said they would file a suit to stop the change.

Several public interest groups including Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition also promised to file a suit. The Internet Association, the trade group that represents big tech firms such as Google and Facebook, said it also was considering legal action.

Smartphone Addiction Creates Brain Imbalance, Study Suggests

My advice is to control the phone instead of letting it control you. As with many other parts of life, for some that will be much easier said than done.

Researchers have found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of Americans say they could not live without their smartphones. While this sentiment is clearly hyperbole, more and more people are becoming increasingly dependent on smartphones and other portable electronic devices for news, information, games, and even the occasional phone call.

Along with a growing concern that young people, in particular, may be spending too much time staring into their phones instead of interacting with others, come questions as to the immediate effects on the brain and the possible long-term consequences of such habits.

Hyung Suk Seo, M.D., professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, and colleagues used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to gain unique insight into the brains of smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers. MRS is a type of MRI that measures the brain’s chemical composition.

The study involved 19 young people (mean age 15.5, 9 males) diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction and 19 gender- and age-matched healthy controls. Twelve of the addicted youth received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, modified from a cognitive therapy program for gaming addiction, as part of the study.

[…]

Researchers used standardized internet and smartphone addiction tests to measure the severity of internet addiction. Questions focused on the extent to which internet and smartphone use affects daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns and feelings.

The researchers performed MRS exams on the addicted youth prior to and following behavioral therapy and a single MRS study on the control patients to measure levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited. Previous studies have found GABA to be involved in vision and motor control and the regulation of various brain functions, including anxiety.

The results of the MRS revealed that, compared to the healthy controls, the ratio of GABA to Glx was significantly increased in the anterior cingulate cortex of smartphone- and internet-addicted youth prior to therapy.

Dr. Seo said the ratios of GABA to creatine and GABA to glutamate were significantly correlated to clinical scales of internet and smartphone addictions, depression and anxiety.

Having too much GABA can result in a number of side effects, including drowsiness and anxiety.

More study is needed to understand the clinical implications of the findings, but Dr. Seo believes that increased GABA in the anterior cingulate gyrus in internet and smartphone addiction may be related to the functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network.

The good news is GABA to Glx ratios in the addicted youth significantly decreased or normalized after cognitive behavioral therapy.

“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,” Dr. Seo said.

Net Neutrality’s Importance

Net neutrality is a doctrine that says Internet service providers should treat Internet traffic that flows over their networks fairly. The repeal of net neutrality means that even more unjust control will be granted to the corporate sector, which could then decide to charge people extra money per month to visit specific websites or even outright block them. So if you’re a U.S. citizen and appreciate the Internet, you should tell Congress to prevent net neutrality from being eliminated.