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Facebook and the dark side of new tech

What kind of company can have $60 billion wiped off its value in just a few days – and still be around?

The Facebook kind.

Facebook has more users than China or India have citizens, and therefore it is just fine – for now. But the Cambridge Analytica scandal – the revelations that the misuse of data on Facebook users may have influenced a whole range of elections – has wounded Facebook very badly.

Do you know how Facebook makes money? Here’s a quick lesson. Users come on the platform because they like to interact with other users – a very human trait. These interactions consist of updates on what they’re doing, what they’re eating or wearing, what they think of things that are happening, pictures or videos of whatever they happen to be doing, etc.

If you’ve been doing that, all of the stuff you posted – or liked – now becomes data for Facebook. Very valuable data about you, which you have given away for free. That data, once mined and packaged, reveals a great deal about you: your likes and dislikes, your consumption patterns, your peeves and passions, your prejudices and weaknesses, your geographical movements, your friends and foes. That data then allows companies to target very specific advertisements at you. Adverts you are very likely to respond to, because Facebook knows you so well – because you allowed it to, whether you knew it or not.

Do you get it? You’re not Facebook’s customer – you’re the product. And you-the-product is sold to the real customers – those who want to advertise to you and influence you. Which may include, it turns out, those who want to swing your vote by showing you messages they already know will affect you deeply.

Don’t imagine Facebook is alone in doing this. Google’s business model is very similar. You are given things you enjoy using – search engines, maps, messaging – that then turn into data about you the more you use those products. Which can then be sold. And those of you on WhatsApp and Instagram who think this doesn’t concern you? Facebook owns both those apps.

The controversy around Facebook is causing tech sector contagion. The fear of a user backlash or regulatory crackdown on privacy laws and the use of personal data led to a stock-market meltdown. Leading tech stocks suffered their worst ever one-day price fall on Tuesday this week.

The dark side of tech is now being exposed and coming under scrutiny. There are three things to worry about. First, the lack of transparency around data gathering and usage. Some tech firms are being likened to mass surveillance systems that invade your privacy and then sell data about you – with your implicit permission, as you click ‘OK’ on your device to permissions you barely understand. As more people become aware of how these business models work, expect more outrage – and more corrective measures.

Second, the speed of tech adoption is creating a new breed of astonishingly powerful individuals. Mark Zuckerberg sits atop a massively valuable – and potentially very dangerous – data mountain. Who holds him accountable? Not his shareholders. His users and their governments may have to do it.

Third, there is the danger of hype. Too much is being sold too quickly to too many gullible consumers. We are all led to believe that we are on the cusp of a digital revolution that will transform the world economy and make the world a better and more equal place. The more circumspect would note that this revolution is making a small number of people very, very rich, and very, very powerful. That’s not new, and it’s not revolutionary. It’s the same old human story, of greed and hype and exploitation of the masses.

Don’t misunderstand: this does not undo the wonderful things tech has done for us in the past decade – and there’s definitely much more of that to come. We are all able to access more information and more possibilities than we ever could before. Many primitive inconveniences are behind us because of modern technology, and we’re only getting started.

What’s just happened is a pause that allows us to sift through the ballyhoo to see what’s actually good for us. The tech isn’t the problem – the humans who sell and deploy it are, as they’ve always been. If the tech giants are wise, they will apply their own correctives quickly and decisively. If consumers wise up, they will protect their privacy more carefully. If governments wake up, they will limit the dangers of private manipulation of misbegotten data.

With an injection of wisdom all round, this pause could still be good for us.

(Sunday Nation, 1 April 2018)

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