The last few weeks have seen a frenzy of reports about the use and alleged misuse of data collected by the biggest names on the Internet: Facebook, Google and Amazon. In addition, considerable media attention has been devoted to identifying commercial culprits such as Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ who have used this data for nefarious and possible illegal purposes. Accusations have been made about the collected data being used to influence elections, alter political decisions, and promote racial intolerance.
What puzzles me is why there is so much attention to a phenomenon that is neither new or novel. While various people and organizations have been accused of misuse or wrongdoing with regards to data, not one concrete piece of evidence has been produced that demonstrated how data misuse actually changed anything. Sure, there’s been lots of speculation and claims, but no one has specifically indicated that “post X” on Facebook, for example, led to “result Y” in the election of the U.S. president or the voting against another candidate.
So why has so much attention been paid to the data practices of Internet giants, the targeting strategies developed by data manipulation companies, and the revelations made by data whistleblowers? I think the answer can be found by using a version of the Bernstein and Woodward mantra: “follow the money.”
I’ve identified three reasons I think so much attention is being paid to something that in reality is relatively inconsequential and trivial.
One. Focusing on the giants of the Internet reduces looking at virtually all the other commercial operations on the Internet that are engaging in identical, albeit not as skilled or successful, data collection practices. Any Internet user who includes tracking software as an extension on their browser will know that almost every commercial site and particularly newspapers will have anywhere from 10 to 25 tracking systems associated with their website. Some even go so far as to block access unless the user turns off the tracking identification software (or cookie blocker).
Data collection is rampant on commercial sites. And transparency or explanations as to what is being tracked or why is non-existent. My hypothesis: media attention to the giants and their data being used for devious or manipulative purposes takes away attention from users recognizing similar data collection of the media actually reporting on the nefarious data collection practices.
Two. The outrageous, unethical, possible illegal, unregulated and annoying data practices contribute to a public outcry for some type of government monitoring and regulation. For years, governments have left the Internet alone. When governments made initial forays into control, companies argued successfully for “self-regulation.” Control themes also generated two new participants in the Internet world: the dark web and hackers devoted to keeping the Internet free of government control.
For many in government, the size and scope of the practices of Internet corporations, hackers and the dark web, were not examples of freedom, but instead were seen as out of the reach of government policies and agencies. This is a significant threat to even western democracies that have become more authoritarian in their practices. Hundreds of tiny policies and laws were enacted by government agencies to limit the practices that abound on the Internet. Incrementalism became the government policy to take over the Internet.
Wildly unsuccessful, incrementalism gave way to making exaggerated claims about how various Internet activities were challenging democracy (in the West) and government control of information (in the East). My hypothesis: the current outrage about data collection is being facilitated by governments through media in order to gain public support for greater control of the massive global giants that pretty much operate independent of government and with revenues that are larger than the majority of countries in the world.
Three. Most users of Facebook, Google, and Amazon could care less about the data practices employed by these giants. One reason is because much of the data that users provide is incorrect or purposely faked. Users have become highly sophisticated about what they say and do on the Internet. In addition, to not providing real names, birth dates, and email addresses that clearly reveal their name or location, users employ VPN’s (or virtual privacy networks) to access desired sites, thus blocking the sites ability to identify who they are or where they are from.
Related to this disguise and user-determined obfuscation is the recent research that purported to show that “fake” news was more likely to be forwarded, shared, distributed and posted on the Internet than factual news. The widely circulated interpretation from this finding is that “fake” news has a longer shelf life and is more influential in cementing user opinion towards the fake rather than the real news.
This is hogwash. Facebook users, for example, typically share such “fake” news with each other as a form of cynicism, jokes, ridicule, and astonishment that any one would believe “this crap.” Why hasn’t the media, so concerned about this fake news, identified one post or shared post that they consider an example of fake news that was passed on. Facebook can easily identify the origin of every post on their servers. Let’s find out who are these people who started circulating specific fake news posts and let’s take action to deal with their efforts: the delete key. My hypothesis is that the media/government thinks Internet users are so stupid they cannot discern what’s real from what’s fake and that users are unable to find the delete key on their keyboard before they’ve fallen down the rabbit hole of unprincipled voting.