Don’t be fooled, Facebook will always treat users like commodities
You are worth £142 to Facebook. That is the financial figure attached to your scrolling through self-indulgent statuses. And the same goes for the guy sitting next to you on the tube, smugly counting the likes on his latest selfie with someone slightly famous.
It’s a simple calculation: company value divided by total users. Facebook published its Q4 2018 earnings this week, revealing a record 2.32 billion people on the platform. Despite the smiling ad campaigns and messianic speeches from senior executives proclaiming they ‘will do better’, it’s these users — nearly one-third of the world’s population — that are Facebook’s commodity, and ultimately its revenue stream.
The company has beaten revenue expectations and shown genuine growth, which means the PR campaign has worked. Trust is being rebuilt, with careful messaging around data privacy and security tending to recent wounds from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Mark Zuckerberg’s interrogation by U.S. Congress.
Facebook is reformed, Facebook is redeemed — or so it would have us believe. I gave a talk at Davos this month on the relationship between ethics and AI and, while there, I watched Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, speak about trust.
It was a case of style over substance, showing the disconnect between what’s disclosed publicly and what’s discussed behind closed doors in Californian boardrooms. Just this Tuesday Facebook was caught offering teen users money to download a ‘research’ app that handed over sensitive data (private messages, location information etc.). Like the interface of Facebook’s platform is immaculately tuned to lure us in, the company’s recent overtures mask something more concerning.
In reality, creating protection mechanisms for Facebook users’ data is much more difficult than the company’s senior team is letting on. If you build a platform and set of algorithms that prioritise engagement and monetisation above everything else, you can’t simply click your fingers (or a mouse) to give autonomy or privacy back to the user.
Facebook is insatiable. Every part of the platform is designed to farm people’s data and sell it as effectively as possible. I am not saying that Facebook, or its executive team, is evil, nor that they began with malevolent intentions. They just happened to design a business model that now dictates company direction.
This could all make for dreary reading, especially given Facebook’s monopoly. I have left the platform three times, enraged by encroaching privacy rules that the company routinely sneaks into two-dozen pages of T&Cs. And each time I return out of social necessity (especially as a father-of-three).
There is hope, however. The tech community is learning that companies built on the bedrock of data monetisation will have problematic futures. The likes of Tim Berners-Lee, and my own team at Friend, are working to break this cycle, creating transparent platforms that put users first. It is only by aligning with users that genuine trust can be built, and only on such platforms can safely integrate AI that can help us merge our lives with technology.
Big Tech will argue that the more they know the more they can help us, but as billions of people come online (in 2016 the United Nations pledged to make internet access a universal human right), the infrastructure of the internet needs to be supportive of privacy. If data is such a valuable commodity, then why are we, the producers, not reaping the financial benefits? We must be given the choice of what data we share, and what we want to keep private.
After all, our memories may be worth £142 to an internet giant — but they are far more valuable than that to us.
PS -some food for thought:
How many apps do you have? (30–60 is average)
Are you sure that is all the apps you have?
( multiply your number by PI and you are closer to the real number)
Large corporations (may) use private data in ways you do not appreciate or consent to. As we are slowly merging with Technology, we HAVE to have Digital Independence.
Would you buy AI as-a-service from any of the Big Tech?
In the future, you will need a Digital Friend that is YOURS.
You need a digital helper that YOU can depend on. Who knows you and what you prefer and which is benevolent to YOU. It will help keep you sane in a world of Virtual, Augmented and Mixed reality (VR, AR, MR)
It will not try to SELL you something or push you to do something (vote?) in the process….