Wednesday 13 November 2019

Did you really think Facebook was your friend?

People are so averse to paying for things, or reading the terms and conditions, that they will trade their first-born for free WiFI, says Brendan O'Connor

DETAILS: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has pleaded for more regulation. Photo credit should rea: Chris Ratcliffe/PA Wir
DETAILS: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has pleaded for more regulation. Photo credit should rea: Chris Ratcliffe/PA Wir

We used to pay the guts of 20 old punts for a CD. A CD was a shiny disk that contained an album's worth of music. Indeed, I once had a hit record with an ecclesiastical hip-hop song, and for a CD containing one song and one remix of the same song, the retail price was five old punts, or over €6. And people paid for it. Indeed, I might modestly mention that it was one of the biggest-selling records of that year in Ireland. And you know what else? Nobody complained that it was bad value.

But that was obviously before everything became "free".

People won't pay a fiver for a CD single anymore, but they will give away their first-born child to get free WiFi. A security researcher in the UK set up a free WiFi spot in Westminster recently. To access the free WiFi people had to agree to terms and conditions, including giving away their first-born child. One-hundred per cent of the people who logged in agreed to give away their first born in order to get the free WiFi. In fairness, that was because 100pc of the people who logged in didn't read the terms and conditions to which they agreed.

These people just took it in their stride that, of course, some company would be offering you free WiFi. But then, people kind of take it for granted that everything is free now. Admit it. You didn't think about it too much over the last decade, did you? You just accepted that newspapers should be free now, that "content" of all kinds is free. Depending on the kind of person you are, you might even think new music and new movies should be free, and maybe you take them, when it suits you. When I tell young people how amazing it is to get all the new music in the world for just a tenner a month on Spotify, compared to what we used to pay for music, they look at me like I'm insane for paying anything at all.

And, of course, people thought the services offered on Facebook and the like were free too. You might get a few annoying ads following you around, but that was grand.

It seems to have come as a big surprise to everyone that all that intimate stuff you were telling Facebook about yourself is, as Steve Bannon put it last week, "for sale all over the world". And now all the people who didn't read the terms and conditions and just took all the free stuff are up in arms that someone came looking for the metaphorical first-born child they signed away, and Facebook is the worst in the world.

Then again, what most sane people are actually thinking is: Why are you surprised? What did you think was going on? Were you not aware of this? How did you think they made the ads that follow you around? Why did you think Facebook was bothering to provide this service to you for nothing? Why did you think a company, to which you pay nothing for its services, was one of the most valuable companies in the history of the world? Did you not understand the services were not the product? That you were? Did you not understand that you are the asset, the "serf" as Steve Bannon would have it? Why did you not think of any of this when you handed yourself over to them, lock, stock and barrel?

Part of the upset this time seems to be the fact that the data was used to create profiles, and that these profiles revealed people's true selves and allowed election campaigns to "target their inner demons", as whistleblower Christopher Wylie put it. People are very shocked that they were targeting our deepest fears and desires.

And indeed, it is unsettling to think that these algorithms know us better than we know ourselves. We're all basically deluded about who we really are. But the algorithms judge us coldly and objectively, not on what we say, but on what we do. So you could see yourself as a great guy altogether, but if the algorithm knows you look at really sick stuff on the internet all the time, it might have a clearer view of who you are.

I've noticed recently that if I get into my car at certain times, my phone will suddenly come to life to tell me how far it is to wherever I am going, and weirdly it's invariably right about where I am going at that particular moment. Admittedly, I generally only go about three places in the car, and I suppose I am fairly regular. But it's still quite freaky to me to think it knows not just where I've been, but where I'm going, what my habits are. At times, it probably knows where I'm going before I do. And I don't even know what I ticked to allow Google maps or whoever to do that. I certainly don't know who else I told them they could share that information with. I obviously just needed Google maps or some location services one day, and I ticked whatever needed ticking and I assumed some company wanted to give me this elaborate navigation system for free, just because.

Even more unsettling is the fact that, at this stage, Spotify, which I do actually pay for, knows better than I do what music I want to listen to. Indeed, in a way, that must point to my deepest fears and inner demons. Those of you who are on social media are probably laughing at my naivete. I'm sure you are used to far more effective surveillance and prediction of your behaviour than this.

The thing about the inner demons thing is that there's nothing new here. Since the days of the Don Drapers, ad men and women have been trying to speak to our deepest fears and desires and demons. It's a bit more targeted now than the old crude form of market segmentation, but then, really, we're not all that different underneath it all. Hilariously, many of the advertisers who bought into Facebook because it leveraged user data to offer effective micro-segmentation of markets and precise targeting of ads to the right eyeballs (though that whole racket turned out to be riddled with fraud as well) are now pulling advertising off Facebook because, well, Facebook was allowing people to use user data to micro-segment and target people.

But then, everyone in this equation is somewhat of a hypocrite. Look at all of us, getting on our high horses because the same tactics that we knew Facebook used to get ads to follow people around were also being used in the arena of politics. Holding this up as some kind of terrible violation of democracy is a bit bogus too. What have politicians done since time immemorial but play on people's deepest unspoken fears and hopes? And from Saint Hillary to Saint Obama, they've all used social media to chop us into types and target us. And voter research and dirty tricks are as old as the hills and not unique to the Facebook era.

The bottom line here is that people have been forced to confront something they knew all the time and they've found a convenient bunch of bad guys to blame for it, and it also involves Donald Trump and Brexit, which always helps people get up on their high horses.

So here we go again for slow learners. Companies are not your friends. Nothing is free. All the 50-million people who had their data scraped had technically all agreed to it, and all of us have agreed to all kinds of stuff we never read. If you're bothered about it, then stop sharing the most intimate details of your life with Mark Zuckerberg, because he doesn't really care about any of us. Though funnily, Zuckerberg is more concerned about this than the Taoiseach. The Taoiseach is on record as saying he believes these companies should ideally regulate themselves. Zuckerberg last week, like a bold child who really craves boundaries and discipline, basically pleaded to be regulated more.

Maybe next time we should all read the terms and conditions. And maybe we should start paying for content and services with money instead of with ourselves. But then. You're not going to do that, are you?

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