Recently, Facebook has come under fire for selling users’ data to companies. Many people are angry about this; I am not. Rather, I want a share of the money they’ve made from me. In this essay, I shall not be discussing the intimate details of cases such as the involvement of Cambridge Analytica in election management, including in the 2016 US presidential election. Instead, a treatment of the ethical practices at play here is given — and an argument is presented as to why I believe the scope of problems present is more limited than others might think.
When you visit the Facebook desktop site, that old starting page looking back at you (which I imagine has been so unchanged over the years to make people feel more comfortable), what is the first thing you tend to see? If you’ve selected various pages that you ‘want to see first’, as I have, you might be treated to a selection of your most favourite content. In my case, this ranges from BBC breaking news to memes about historical linguistics. But as you scroll, and of course, you will scroll (as I just did for 20 minutes in the middle of writing this paragraph), you’ll see items looking exactly like those to which you have overtly expressed interest in seeing but with a little ‘Suggested for you’ tab at the top. You might also see smaller ads on the right of your page, although I personally don’t.
Regardless, these advertisements have been specifically targeted at you, based on the data that you provide to the website. This data (taking the form of your age and sex to the pages you like, websites that are connected with Facebook you visit, apps you use and content you most actively engage with) is then sold to companies, who can build a profile of your interests and present you with advertisements for things they reckon you’ll be interested in. Perhaps obviously, this ‘reckon’ is deemed sufficient for both Facebook to put a price on the data provided, and for businesses to believe that they stand to make such a gain from its purchase that they’ll happily pay. These companies use this data to cater and deliver user-specific advertisements, in the hopes that those subjected to catering will be more likely to follow up on whatever the advertisement offers.
But here’s where my first line of argument begins: this is all based on reckon and hope. Businesses reckon that they’ll make money from buying Facebook data, and they hope that we’ll click on their advertisements, then buy their products enough to make the marketing investment worthwhile. Of course, we’re doing so in fantastic amounts (and a lot of people are getting very rich in the process), but we are under no obligation to click and buy — and when we do, are we not benefiting ourselves? Why can’t we be grateful that we have been delivered a product right to our technological front door? We do not castigate the small business owner for placing an advertisement in her shop window, which, upon walking down our high-street, piques our interest and instigates a transaction. When we conceptualise Facebook in this way (where, perhaps, the ‘Feed’ is the high-street and the shop window represents where advertisements might appear on Facebook), which I think is quite apt in this social media age, our first port-of-call for many things being Facebook itself (as it might have been a high-street in the past, for things like social interaction, shopping etc.), we find that, really, there is no guilty party here at all.
Some may quite rightly say at this that I have oversimplified the situation. It might be argued that it is the selling of data that is where the problem lies most — that it is an invasion of people’s privacy to sell off their personal data for monetary gain. Here, the high-street is at fault, not the small business owner. Of course, that does not fit with our previous analogy, so let’s adjust it: say, at either end of the high-street, there is a ‘data toll booth’ at which all those who want to pass must provide personal information (of the like sufficiently equivalent to that which Facebook currently collects), and wherein to pass one must consent to the sharing of such personal information. The toll booth operators then sell the information acquired to the businesses on the high-street, who can adjust their window-marketing strategies accordingly. Here, can we blame the toll booth operators? We consent to having our data sold, it is sold, and businesses buy. Of course, we all do consent when we sign up for social media sites, and we all never read the terms and conditions.
One interesting point of note here is that there is something wrong with the way social media sites, and other sites where applicable, present their terms and conditions. Regardless of whether any fault can be put on us for not reading them (and then disliking the consequences of our failure to read them), I think there is something to be said for it being unfair to expect people to be able to read and then ably understand the contents of such jargon-filled legalese. In my mind, companies exhibit unethical practices in how they effectively hide the consequences of signing up to a contract (in the registering of a social media account) when they put them in the depths of a many-page legal document. To some people, this might seem like an irresolvable problem: companies need to be able to give us contracts to sign so that they can justify their practices, and we will never fully read and/or understand them. My solution to this would be to force companies to be able to ‘sum up’ the ‘most important aspects’ of their contracts for their consumers, in bullet-point form, on a single-sided page. This would obviously require scrutiny and governmental oversight, but I figure it would be a fitting solution here, if possibly implementable.
In any case, it appears most people would disagree with me on this toll booth case. Many people are very upset that their data has been used ‘without their consent’ and sold ‘without their knowledge’. I’m sure, if you went deep enough through the terms and conditions you accepted when you created the account, this would be mentioned in enough detail for it not to be scandalous — although, as I have just explained, that’s no excuse. Perhaps to some people it feels quite intimately wrong, as if someone has come snooping round your house, collecting dust samples and going through your underwear drawer. Perhaps for others it’s as if they have been somehow violated, as if a part of their person had been taken and exploited for profit. Neither of these reasons particularly bother me. The government has as much data on me as any social media site does, in some senses more (e.g. medical records), and, on occasion, governmental behaviour leaves as much to be desired as does the behaviour of certain social media sites. And so long as nothing untoward happens to my property, people can look around my house as much as they like. What bothers me most, I think, is something else entirely: I’ve been played.
To Facebook, I am a valuable asset. That is, that I have a value to Facebook (insofar as they can sell my data to interested third parties), and, in a certain way, Facebook owns me. I make money for Mark Zuckerberg, and yet Mark Zuckerberg pays me nothing. I want a share of the money I make for Facebook; I feel that, ethically, I’m owed. Dearest Facebook, give me some of the money you’ve earnt from my data. Mark, pay me.
From a business standpoint, I actually think this makes a lot of sense. I am almost certain that, if people were given the choice to ‘opt in’ or ‘opt out’ of having their data sold, and then they were given some form of recompense for their data-selling, there would be far less of a scandal around Facebook’s behaviour. Even in this recompense, I am sure Facebook could offer very little and still keep people happy — it wouldn’t have to be the value of a yearly salary, but I reckon if people made a few hundred pounds over a twelve-month period from their data being sold, the masses would be content. It would certainly keep me happy, although I’m definitely open to higher figures being offered — perhaps a tiered system could be introduced, wherein the more data you sell, the more you can make. Easy money.
Sadly, I don’t see this system being implemented. It might be too costly, too difficult to organise, or just not worth it. I think it would benefit a massive amount of people, potentially save Facebook a lot of face, and settle rising concerns over its ethical practices. I’d quite like some cash, too. Nevertheless, this is the most troublesome ethical issue for Facebook in my eyes, and I hope some adequate solution is presented forthwith.